Academic journal article Arthuriana

Fate and the Plight of the Unloved in Kneehigh Theatre's Tristan & Yseult

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Fate and the Plight of the Unloved in Kneehigh Theatre's Tristan & Yseult

Article excerpt

This essay examines how Kneehigh's-exuberantly theatrical-musical adaptation of the Tristan legend shifts the focus from the lovers to the 'unloved,' the members of their entourage (especially their spouses) who experience the fall-out from this great passion. A literary analysis of the play is followed b a discussion of Kneehigh's enthusiastic embrace of 'devised' (performance-based) theater. (JTG)

'Few stories have inspired more works of literature, art, and music than the tragic love of Tristan and Isolt,' notes Alan Lupack at the beginning of the chapter he devotes to the legend in his Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend.1 Indeed, the ancient story gave rise to countless visual and literary retellings throughout the Middle Ages, and in modern times it has inspired artists of every stripe: novelists, poets, dramatists, composers, and filmmakers.2 Lupack rightly traces its popularity in the twentieth century to two masterpieces: Wagner's brilliant opera drama, Tristan und Isolde (completed in 1859, premiered in 1865) and Joseph Bédier's engaging modern prose adaptation, Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut (1900).3 In the twenty-first century, Wagner's influence has far surpassed Bédier's: his Tristan und Isolde has enjoyed a virtual renaissance featuring various innovative mises-en-scène and interpretations of the main characters that the composer, for all of his inventiveness, might well have found unsettling.

For some who have brought the legend to the stage, Wagner's opera has elicited a kind of counter-reaction: indeed, Emma Rice, adaptor and director of Kneehigh Theatre's Tristan & Yseult, who wanted to 'reclaim' the legend from Wagner, has sought to depict not 'an epic tale of grand romantic love, held at arm's length from our own experience, but a tender unraveling of love in all its beautiful and painful forms.'4 Recognizing in the old story something that resonates with the lives of many, including herself, she shifts the focus from an exclusive love binding two individuals to what could be called the collateral damage wreaked by that passion on those who find themselves shut out, especially the lovers' marital partners, Mark and Yseult of the White Hands (called simply Whitehands in this production, where she doubles as the head of the Club of the Unloved). As Whitehands observes, some people seem fated to attract love, but those whom Fortune does not favor may be forced to take Fate into their own hands. The yearnings of the Unloved and their attempts to manipulate a force they believe has treated them unfairly are at the heart of this musical production, where Wagner and Carl Orff share music credits with the likes of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, all of whom emphasize the pain of love and the role played by Fate.

Kneehigh Theatre is one of the most successful of contemporary alternative British touring companies. Since its creation in 1980, it has produced over eighty shows. As the company is based in Cornwall, it was natural that it would eventually be attracted to one of the most ancient tales associated with that area.5 Tristan & Yseult, dating from 2003, marked a milestone for the company, which until then had mostly performed locally. It was initially created as a site-specific piece for outdoor theaters in Cornwall (Restormel Castle, Minack Theatre, and Eden Project) and Nottinghamshire (Rufford Abbey). But it was soon taken up by London's National Theatre, whose investment brought it inside and made it both more physical and more musical. In this new incarnation, it enjoyed a major national tour before traveling to anglophone countries abroad.6 It was the object of an exuberant revival with a new cast of characters ten years later in Britain and, in collaboration with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, had premieres in Berkeley, Chicago, and New York in 2014 and in Boston and Houston in 2015. Along with The Red Shoes and Brief Encounter, Tristan & Yseult is one of Kneehigh's longest running productions and no doubt its best loved. …

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