Cy Ashley Webb of Stark Insider reviews ‘Tristan & Yseult’ at Berkeley Rep Theatre.
I could begin by saying that Kneehigh is Cornwall’s critically acclaimed national theatre, but that would be boring and entirely beside the point. Better to point out that they’ve produced a cult hit that goes to the core of what theatre is all about. Kneehigh is fun, they’re smart, they’re kicky, and their version of Tristan & Yseult has an electricity that I couldn’t have imagined before last night.
The sheer physicality of Kneehigh’s performance is breathtaking.
As anyone who grew up reading the Once and Future King knows, Tristan & Yseult is a Cornish Arthurian legend. Uther Pendragaon has his dalliance with Igraine, Lancelot had his with Guinevere, and Tristan was shaking the timbers with Yseult in King Mark’s court. Wagner turned the last of these into a five and half hour opera that ends with Tristan and Yseult dead.
Enough back story, however. Kneehigh’s retelling is Tristan & Yseult as told by Monty Python, with the Men in Black doing a samba beat, and throwing an homage to a half dozen others. While this is so not Wagner (unless of course, you can imagine clapping along to Wagner, or Wagner with a lot of balloons, or Wagner in drag), it does go straight to the heart of the tragedy, in ways that a five and half hour opera never can.
This ability to not stray from the heart of the story is what makes Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult so very successful. How they do it is an entirely different matter. For starters, Brangian, (the demure maid of Yseult who takes Yseult’s place in the bed of King Mark on her wedding night so that Mark doesn’t twig that Yseult is not a virgin) is played in drag. Artistic Director Mike Shepherd points out, this was a conscious choice. Shepherd notes “When we see a pretty, thin young girl play a virginal maid, nothing is challenged, nothing is opened, nothing is revealed. When I give this part to a large middle aged man, the opposite happens. We laugh at him, and then we imagine and then we feel. This brute becomes so frail and so vulnerable it breaks our hearts.”
In additional to going to the heart of the story, Kneehigh opens it up to include everyone in the audience. The action is watched by the Lovespotters, a crew of birdlike denizens armed with notepads and binoculars, who remain outside, but very much a part of the charmed circle. This has the effect of drawing the audience in, because we’ve all been some part of this drama.
The sheer physicality of Kneehigh’s performance is breathtaking. One could watch Craig Johnson (Brangian and Morholt), Giles King (Frocin) Mike Shepherd (King Mark) and Andrew Durand (Tristan) all night long. The brilliant fight choreography alone is worth the price of admission, as is the smart, smart music. Carley Bawden is a knowing, sexy Whitehands, with a voice that won’t quit.
Tristan & Yseult plays Berkeley Rep until January 6th.