In the romance of Tristan and Isolde, few may remember that it was domestic ennui that ultimately killed their legendary love. That detail is nevertheless the crux of a spirited and sexy acrobatic version of the Celtic tale from the Cornwall company, Kneehigh. In this Tristan & Yseult, which spins around a circular stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse, under a live band perched on a trellis of gangplanks, the mythical couple is celebrated, as is their due, in thrilling Wagnerian chords. But these are summoned from a lowly turntable: director Emma Rice’s version of this famed tale is more concerned with the lonely masses who will never know the pain of Cupid’s arrow.
Those poor souls appear as a nerdy chorus of “Love Spotters” in identical rain parkas, knit hoods and thick spectacles, outfitted for their task with binoculars and fantastic camouflage headgear. Along with their leader, an embittered 1950s era house wife, Ms. Whitehands – who figures at the end of the legend, where the show starts – they are the unwilling members of a literal and figurative “Club of the Unloved,” whose fate it is to merely bear witness to the fireworks of the lucky ones.
Those would of course be Brittany-born Tristan (Dominic Marsh), here styled as a young Jean-Paul Belmondo type, and the Irish Yseult (Hannah Vassallo, a captivating faerie in the flesh). Although the reckless Frenchman has been sent by the Cornish king Mark to bring Yseult to become his bride, the two fall in love on the ship bound for their liege lord. Fireworks is an understatement for the pyrotechnics (and aerial rope cavorting) their encounter sets off; Kneehigh might feel a wounded sympathy with Ms. Whitehands’ frustrated desire but they also take great relish in the “blood and fire” of an unquenchable passion.
Less unbridled is the denouement of the legend, as Tristan must at first bury his ardor for Yseult under allegiance to Mark, the closer their love boat draws to Cornwall’s cliffs (the incident prompts one of many charming scenes anchored by the physical comedy of Niall Ashdown, as Yseult’s earthy handmaiden Brangian). When the lovers are finally sniffed out by a Polaroid-toting Frocin (a Tom Jonesish lounge lizard, as portrayed by Damon Daunno), they are summarily turned out of the kingdom. But exile proves a bitter pill, even in Kneehigh’s fanciful forest, and before long the lovers are sheepishly taking their places in their prescribed roles as wife and royal subject, setting up the legend’s tragic conclusion, also known as Ms. Whitehands’ revenge.
There is almost nothing that Kneehigh does wrong (or doesn’t do at all) in this total production that marries slapstick, gags, audience participation, acrobatics, the soaring emotion of Wagner’s opera and a crazy fun interlude of “love” songs, from Bob Marley to Daft Punk, in the “Club of the Unloved” at intermission. The company’s kaleidoscopic story-telling skills – where a toy boat can carry Tristan off as effectively as any seaworthy ship, and an invented monologue by Brangian, forced to stand in for Yseult on her wedding night to Mark, can develop new narrative threads – make for an innocent disillusionment that is thoroughly endearing. The double-cast ensemble is excellent, switching from tragic to comic on a dime (Mike Shepherd is particularly good as polar opposites Mark and his geeky “Love Spotter”), and carrying Rice’s double theme of great loves that blazed and others that never had a chance to light a match.
Though the many written versions of the tale spend little time on Ms. Whitehands’ final passion-killing act or Brangian’s self-sacrifice, both women enjoy the spotlight for a time in this cunning shake-up of the most famous triangular romance ever told. In the thickest mists of legend, it’s easy to forget that, no matter how hard it burns at first, Tristan and Yseult’s flame is extinguished because they allow it to be, by protocol and a spurned wife. Such was the mantra of medieval romance: convention kills love. Kneehigh taps the medieval heart of the legend in their modern interpretation that all the unloved can cheer.