1 (of a feeling or its expression) deeply and strongly felt; sincere.
Sometimes when we want to say that a piece of art has given us comfort – or more simply that it has touched a place we find difficult to articulate – we say it has heart. Tristan and Yseult, Kneehigh’s now fourteen-year-old show, has heart, unconditionally.
You probably know the story even if you don’t know you know it – the thwarted love between a woman and the right hand man of the king she must marry, passion weighed against duty. As a cursory Wiki tells you, it’s not just a myth but a mytheme: a node or nodule of story that reappears in countless other tellings all over the world. Tristan and Yseult may be a Cornish tale (which identity led to its programming back in 2003) but it’s familiarly universal in a very real way.
And, to be honest, doomed lovers are ten a penny; as cultural currency, those coins can look a bit dull. The bright brilliance of Kneehigh’s devastating reframing is that time and space is given not only to the lovers, but to those left behind by their love: the gently-moving chorus that leads us through is the Club of the Unloved, a bespectacled and anoraked collection of erstwhile lonely hearts, only too eager to spill into the background roles of a love story clearly beyond what most of them (and us) hope to achieve. Kirsty Woodward is outstanding as Whitehands, the de facto leader of the Club: arch, brittle, neat as a pin in a 1950s A-line skirt and dark glasses – not so much the teller of the tale as the keeper of it.
It’s a conceit that is as heartbreaking as it is simple: routing the tale through the Benvolios and Parises rather than the Romeos and Juliets. It’s almost Stoppardian – and there are flashes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in the coiled wryness of Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy’s script, but this is a more bountiful play by far, goofier and more generous with how it allows the story to tell itself: a fleet-footed mix of verse, pop, opera, puppetry and dance. There’s whimsy, but there’s ballast too, a sorrowful maturity that anchors the whirligig.
Emma Rice’s production is hugely savvy about the different genres the myth occupies, the different archetypes its characters are up against: it plays against the rules that drag it inexorably towards tragedy, while at the same time succumbing to them. Each character has a mode of communication: Whitehands’ snarling narratorial address is matched by King Mark’s (Mike Shepherd) iambic pentameter; Dominic Marsh as Tristan (looking for all the world like Christopher Brett Bailey cosplaying as Billy Joe Armstrong, all big hair, tight trousers and eye-liner) belts ardent repeated statements, overflowing into French, while Hannah Vassallo’s Yseult keeps bursting into dance as though words aren’t enough.
It’s a keen response to the integral problems of staging a myth, where things happen weightlessly: “Time passes.” “Yseult goes back to her husband”. Kneehigh’s response to these moments is to carve out spaces for themselves where they can embroider, have fun, kick about with music and movement: the opening battle against the Irish invading forces is a gleeful pastiche of fighty cinema tropes, Yseult and Mark’s wedding a version of every bad nuptial where the speeches are too long, the tensions too high, and the guests too boozed. If occasionally these set pieces feel like they’re running on Kneehigh time rather than the audience’s, then the net returns are far greater than the losses: the meanders are bright and endearing, heartfelt rather than indulgent. More than anything else, it reminded me of what Christopher Logue does to the Iliad with War Music: dismantles its carapace of years, uses a cinematic vocabulary to jump cut between different perspectives, reveals a present beating heart within.
1 (of a feeling, especially love) not returned.
Tristan and Yseult is studded with moments dedicated to the Unloved: Brangian’s (Niall Ashdown) elegy for her own love story, which has never appeared and will likely never get started, Frocin’s (Kyle Lima) oily (and airborne) paparazzo-style snapping of the lovers in flagrante, Whitehands’ final, anguished revelations.
It is tempting to read into it a parallel story, for every night at the Globe now has a countdown attached to it: only a handful more shows before Emma Rice moves on and, with her, the special brand of white-witch magic she has brought to the theatre. Over too, presumably, will be the Globe’s association with Kneehigh, and the opportunity to spend more nights like this. Tristan and Yseult is the show that properly launched Emma Rice’s career with the company back in 2003 – the Globe circle provides a handy metaphor once again as it homes what may be the show’s final outing, ending at the beginning, as the play itself does.
It feels doubly wounding because this show reveals quite how well matched Rice really is with the Globe. Over the course of the two hours’ traffic, the Tristan and Yseult audience erupts into dancing, sings along, gives a toast – and, near the end, offers an entirely spontaneous wounded cry. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a show not made for this theatre, and puts paid to the idea that the Globe should be a place of shibboleths, a set of rules to be observed. It suggests that any piece with an honesty about its storytelling and an approach that requires a livewire thrum from its audience can thrive there; Tristan and Yseult wears its heart on its sleeve, and that’s a perfect thing for an audience jostling each other in the yard under a summer evening sky. If I have to nitpick, perhaps it doesn’t always settle on the Globe stage perfectly – its raised drum of a set is a stage in itself, and at times it feels sort of plonked into the middle of another theatre – but it exploits the Globe’s natural camaraderie with its audience too well for us to care. Rice has brought a lot of love to the Globe; it hasn’t necessarily loved her back.
1 a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.
2 a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.
3 sexual passion or desire.
4 a person toward whom love is felt; beloved person; sweetheart.
It can be hard to write critically about something of which you find yourself an immediate, ardent fan. Everything clever I wanted to say has vanished like a dream; what is left, long after, is the ache.
Tristan and Yseult is on until 24th June 2017 at Shakespeare’s Globe. Click here for more details.