Tristan & Yseult's Postmodern Timelessness

It's not often the average person's Spotify playlist veers from Richard Wagner to Dexys Midnight Runners, then to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It's probably as uncommon as the smorgasbord of sights, sounds, textures and orchestrated chaos afoot in Tristan & Yseult, courtesy of the Britain-based troupe Kneehigh. Inventive, imaginative, dark and joyous, this (very loose) adaptation of the medieval folk tale that spawned the Arthurian legend of Lancelot and Guinevere (or vice versa) explores the most universal and sappy of all human conditions—love—but in ways that are constantly engaging and surprising.

And while one can quibble with the rave from some wag at The Guardian newspaper—”If this show doesn't make you fall in love with theater, there's no potion on Earth that can help you”—damn if it's near impossible to not be captivated by the proceedings, whatever your take on love, legends or being strong-armed into blowing up balloons for a wedding ceremony.

If you're not familiar with the source material, which has received treatments as varied as Wagner's opera of the same name to Ridley Scott's 2006 film starring James Franco, don't worry about it. Basically, boy meets girl, they fall in love, and everything goes to hell. Tristan (Dominic Marsh) is a shipwrecked French gallivant who washes up in Cornwall and helps King Mark (Mike Shepherd) fend off an Irish invasion by the Celtic chieftain Morholt (Niall Ashdown). His thanks? Mark sends him to Ireland to capture Morholt's younger sister, Yseult (Hannah Vassallo), so Mark can take her as his wife. Tristan does so, but the two find themselves hopelessly infatuated, and by the time Yseult arrives in Cornwall, her plumbing isn't exactly in full maiden mode.

But the plot is really secondary to the frenetic free-for-all in Emma Rice's adaptation (written by Anna Maria Murphy and Carl Grose) and direction. While the action is set in Cornwall and Ireland, it's really taking place in the Club of the Unloved, where a chorus of hooded, bespectacled lovespotters (think the Minions in Despicable Me) and a five-person band comment, create and satirize everything that is going on. There is some recorded music, including strains of Wagner and Cave's song Sweetheart Come, but the live music propels the events, with nearly every actor at some point picking up instruments ranging from mandolins and clarinets to ukuleles and accordions.

Using hand-rigged wires and ropes, the chorus vaults the lovers into the air, where they contort in ecstasy, giving a gymnastic flair to the piece. The audience is constantly engaged, as well, whether being recruited to be in a wedding ceremony or informally interviewed as to the status of their love lives. It's also a show that will more than satisfy lovers of dance, as styles ranging from ballet and rumba to jazz and breakdancing are on display.

But rather than feel disjointed, everything works, mostly because just as things seem riotously out of control and it feels as if the production's charm is about to wear off, Rice masterfully reins everything in, providing emotional gravity and high-stakes drama. One notable example is when Yseult's female servant (portrayed by Ashdown, a man) is called upon to perform a most unsavory duty on her mistress' wedding night. What could have just been reduced to a cheap joke instead turns into a sobering, poignant moment. The type of character relegated to the background in epic tales is suddenly revealed as a human being, with all the emotional longing and intensity of the heroes and heroines who get first billing.

It also doesn't hurt that an incredibly talented roster of actors, dancers and musicians is on display. There isn't a weak link in the production, from Whitehands (Kristy Woodward), a mysterious nurse who serves as the symbol of unrequited love, to Frocin (Damon Daunno), Tristan's main adversary. But special mention needs to be called to Vassallo's Yseult, who contributes an astonishing performance, and Ashdown's incredible turn as her cross-dressing servant.

Another plus is that nearly every actor and musician has extensive experience with Kneehigh, a Cornwall-based company that began in 1980. Rather than having to audition and find talented people to work together, there's already a built-in aesthetic that everyone is obviously comfortable with. The result is a production that works on multiple levels, from sheer entertainment to a sincere exploration of the most insane of human conditions. As intoxicating and enrapturing as love can be, it is also fraught with peril and misery, and for a modern theater company to capture that roller coaster through a centuries-old folk tale is undeniably impressive.

The story is ancient, the production contemporary, and as wedded to theatrical convention as it is, it takes those conventions and blows them apart. It's one of those rare productions that approaches the realm of high art while giddily reveling in that base, common, barbarous thing called fun.

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