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Arts Festival Review: Tristan and Yseult

Tristan and Yseult

Reviewed by Lyndon Hood

Tristan and Yseult
Kneehigh Theatre, National Theatre
3 - 7 March
The Opera House

They had me before they even started.

The audience had been handed balloons, and on this occassion it wasn't long before some bright spark thought to blow one up and send it off into the world. It was an idea whose time had come. The sight of dozens of white balloons bouncing around above a crowd of hundreds had a novelty and exuberance that was utterly entrancing and turned out to be typical of the whole production. This despite the fact that we were, apparently, supposed to save the balloons till later on, does not change that.

Before all this (and during it) we had been watched from the the stage by folk in anoraks and balaclavas. These were the unloved - "lovespotters". They examined the audience through their binoculars and jotted us down in their little books. In a tale of heroes and heroines who fall in love at first sight, this chorus grounds the story and provides us mere mortals with an approachable angle into the action.

They have also developed patheticness to a fine art. Always hovering at the edges of the action, or trying to help it along by pretending to be scenery, their every gesture conveys their low status in a way that is continuously amusing. If you've ever tried to tell yourself that there are people worse off than you - these are them.

Their presence, and they way characters slip in and out of their ranks, is one aspect of the whole - the production uses the ancient Cornish tale of the fatal triangle, loosely modernising and gently interpreting, it to canvass every aspect of love: for the friend, the lover, the lord, for family; gaining it, having it, loosing it; loyalty and betrayal. It's all there. You needn't worry about missing any of these points for not having read the programme notes - someone inevitably mentions the L-word every time the emotion enters the plot.

Tristan and Yseult was created for outdoor performances, and while the frame of the story has been adapted for an indoor setting, an outdoors style of performance is still ingrained in the show. Overall, depth of character and detailed performance to a back seat to energy, clarity and - the thing that makes this one special - continuous theatrical invention. Tristan and Yseult is like an enourmous game that the audience has been invited to join.

Images and theatricality fly thick and fast - Tristan's journey at the King's orders is, for example, is conducted a he sleeps in a newly-rigged hammock, serenaded by the chorus and the live band as a rough-and-ready projection system displays a little boat floating from Cornwall to Ireland.

The impression of perhaps a particularly entertaining, enthusiastic and theatrically inventive fringe show exploded into a full-scale production was reinforced when, after the applause died down, one of the players popped out to remind everyone how long they were here for and encourage us to tell our friends.

Many of the images help the plot along or expand on the emotions of the scene; a good few (Tristan's only posession on appearing in Cornwall is a cello?) seem to be there simply because the are both fascinating and entertaining. If one or two fall flat, this is a small price for the many, many that fly.

Towards the end of the play the pace slackens - perhaps reflecting the loves growing old and familiar and the seperations that occur. One is almost tempted to wonder if they've run out of plot - but then a new set of gears kick in and the action drives towards its tragic conclusion.

Many of those images, and that endless entertainment, dissipate in time after the play ends; like fairy gold, gone by morning. But some stay.

For instance, as Tristan and Yseult journey back to Cornwall, ropes running off the mast that forms the centre of the set allow all those ideas about new love - falling, floating, flying, being driven to the other by gravity - to be played out literally. Watching it, you can imagine just how it feels.

Another comes after Yseult's maid - to convince the groom, King Mark, that Yseult is still a virgin - takes her mistress's place on the wedding night. She explains how it felt, for the first time to feel the physical experience of being beloved, and then returns to her place among the unloved. The part of the maid is in fact played by a man; the comic value of that is exploited fully earlier - the way it also sustained such pathos is remakable.

Last of all, what makes the climax of the story truly compelling is not merely the lovers' storybook tragedy or operatic emotion of its staging - it is the fact the deadly conclusion comes about because of a woman who we have know as the leader of that adorable chorus of the unloved. One who had only commented on the story enters it, and the constant sight of great love out of reach forces the fire of pain and envy from behind that lovelessness that had won us over before.

Even as the Lady Whitehands' malice causes Tristan's death, she asks for our understanding. And she has it.


NZ Festival: Tristan and Yseult
Kneehigh Theatre website

Scoop Audio Interview: Tristan and Yseult director Emma Rice

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