This is Heartbreak Hotel filled with ‘The Unloved’ in hoodies. This channels Monty Python, but without making fun of the French. This is a fusion of Renaissance instrumentation with soaring Wagnerian orchestration with disco beats. This is Tristan & Yseult. This is Kneehigh.
Given the current offering at The Globe as part of the Summer of Love season, Emma Rice’s seminal work for Kneehigh fits right in – it almost feels as though the programme was concocted to showcase this show as its crown jewel. While it doesn’t shine as brightly as some of the others (Twelfth Night retains its title in this regard), Tristan & Yseult more than deserves its place at the centre of the summer offering.
Except it’s a bit panto. And it’s a bit circus. It has some faux opera in it too. Basically, it’s too everything. In many ways, that is its charm – Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy effortlessly combine prose and verse to pay due homage to Wagner’s original opera and succinctly condense it into a manageable storyline. The narrative is constantly clear and constantly moving while never feeling bogged down in itself – Wagner’s original work often plays at over five hours, so by comparison this is a mere summary. Not only that, but there’s some well-crafted influences that creep into the text – at one moment there are hidden hints to one of Roald Dahl “Revolting Rhymes”, instantly transporting the atmosphere back to a childlike sense of disgusted delight. Magical.
The problem comes when the show strays into predictable pastiche. For all of Bill Mitchell’s beautifully evocative design, there are parts that seem included simply to glean laughs – the love-o-meter is a prime example that adds little to the overall production. In fact, the second half overall completely disconnects itself from the first. King Mark (Mike Shepherd) takes on a more serious turn that is unbecoming of the remainder of the show and suddenly the atmosphere switches from jovial to sombre. It’s not unwelcome and it’s always exceptionally executed, but the two aspects clash with each other – less like two complementary acts in an opera and more like two competing plays in a showcase.
The galvanising factors throughout that ensure Tristan & Yseult never strays too far off course are the music and the cast. Stu Barker’s composition and Simon Baker’s sound design act almost like foley in this production – a mixture of live instrumentation and pre-recorded complex textures that emphasise key elements of the action with style and substance in equal measure.
And the cast! A few moments of slapstick aside, these are a group of performers that are intrinsically in tune with their creative team. Whether it be Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward) and her blunt beauty, Tristan (Dominic Marsh) and his gallant Breton stereotypes, or the more than welcome intrusion of Brangian (Niall Ashdown) as a parallel to Widow Twankey, each adds to the ever more colourful picture that Rice expertly paints.
Wagner’s opera is full of morose sobriety – Kneehigh’s adaptation of Tristan & Yseult may have points of introspection, but this is definitely not a play for the sober. Or the serious. Or those that are afraid to witness risk. Now 14 years since its inception, this play bountifully resonates with as much of its original energy and gaiety as ever. This is Emma Rice. This is what The Globe will miss out on. This is Kneehigh.
Tristan & Yseult is playing Shakespeare’s Globe until June 24.
Photo: Steve Tanner