The 10th anniversary production of Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult is a refashioning of the show that first put the British troupe on the map. And under director Emma Rice's inventive eye, it's a version that manages to pay homage to the original story, while upending the typical histrionics of the Tristan & Yseult franchise.
Writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy's adaptation pulls out all the stops, swerving from bawdy humor to dark melodrama, mixing cross-dressing with tragedy. Cheekily irreverent and silly, the show revels in the versatility of the skilled troupe: Actors haul out talents as if from a bottomless chest, pulling off musical performances, Riverdance impersonations and wire acrobatics. This is a show for showmen.
But for all its bells and whistles, Tristan & Yseult has as much depth as it does dazzle. The play, which opens with a primly dressed Miss Whitehands singing melancholy love ballads, ultimately is marked by deep nostalgia. It's an ode to the mythic romance and a monument to having loved -- and having lost.
The drama begins when a wounded Tristan, fresh from the battlefield after defeating the Irish mobster Morholt (Craig Johnson), is sent to find a wife for his uncle, King Mark (Mike Shepherd). The wife in question happens to be Morholt's sister, Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska). When Tristan finds her -- and when she, in turns, finds out her fate -- she's torn apart. But there's a potion to solve this problem: It's a mixture that makes her fall in love with the king responsible for her brother's death. As she buries her sorrow in swigs of elixir, accidentally or on purpose, Tristan drinks from the bottle, too. The wrong pair ends up falling in love -- and right before the wedding.
Yseult, after meeting an unexpectedly gentle King Mark, wonders if she might be capable of loving two people. And when the potion finally wears off, as potions do, we're left to discover whether Tristan and Yseult, post-potion, will choose to stay together.
Like a film in which the editing is purposefully evident, so are the mechanics of this production. The actors speak from a raised center platform, and the crew and band work and play from the stage. Costume changes take place far from the wings of the theater, exposed for the audience to see. In keeping backstage secrets always in sight, it's clear to those who watch that Tristan and Yseult live -- and love -- on a stage, one arranged for a romance that was always pre-figured by fate.
Their love and turmoil unravel under the careful eye of Miss Whitehands, the play's omniscient narrator, played by a serenely self-possessed Carly Bawden. She's a cool, classy lady, with a soulful voice and an unruffled demeanor; like a diva surrounded by her entourage, she's flanked by the "Lovespotters," dark, hooded figures who troll the stage with binoculars in search of romance. They are all members of the "Club of the Unloved."
The show is a joy to watch, entertaining at every turn, and it's initially easy to write it off as largely style with little substance. But it's the ending that serves a payoff far greater than you might imagine, and gives the rest of the work its depth and meaning. The Lovespotters, who have so far kept to the periphery, emerge from the depths of the stage. Serving as both crew and prop masters -- every once in a while giving life to a mechanical bird, or helping an actor hook into his equipment, always in the background -- they're now the main event. They're the ones we remember at the end, the unloved -- previously lost in the shadows of Tristan and Yseult's great romance.
Tristan & Yseult runs through January 6, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.
All photos by Steve Tanner.