Tristan and Yseult (Leeds)
Kneehigh at the West Yorkshire Playhouse
Emma Rice, director of Kneehigh's new production of its 2003 triumph, Tristan & Yseult, makes a very odd comment in the programme, that it is "greater than the sum of its parts".
On the contrary its success owes much to the sum of its parts being so huge. Where else would you get poetry, physical theatre including aerial work, dancing both comic and erotic, broad humour, live music with every cast member playing a musical instrument, cabaret before the start and in the interval, a strange chorus in woolly hats, thick-rimmed glasses and waterproof jackets, narrative and/or musical motifs from Wagner (and not only Tristan and Isolde), a mass release of balloons and, somewhere in there, a tragic love story?
Constantly surprising and often wonderfully entertaining, it is certainly a great evening's theatre, as conveyed by a standing ovation from a healthy proportion of the near-capacity audience. Perhaps the different elements take time to gel, but an all-action first half gives no time to reflect on that and the more serious second half builds to a moving conclusion.
The story is set in the Club of the Unloved and enacted by those same unloved. Before the start, as I enter, a nifty little quartet is accompanying a young woman in Patsy Cline's "Crazy". She is Whitehands, leader/pin-up of the Unloved, played by Carly Bawden whose coolly bitter elegance and fine singing voice contrast with the innocent, muddled eagerness of the others.
As they cast off their anonymity, Giles King and Craig Johnson emerge as extrovert comedians, King forever dancing on the edge of mania and humiliation as King Mark's devoted follower Frocin and Johnson following an Irish quiz-show host of an invading king with a clumsily diffident Brangian, Yseult's female servant.
Mike Shepherd's King Mark has the focus of a Mafia capo combined with an Arthurian sense of honour and Tristan Sturrock and Patrycja Kujawska express the lovers' feelings with great physicality and surprisingly few lines. Her spirited performance even takes in some highly effective violin playing.
The music under Stu Barker is excellent with the distinctive sounds of accordion and dulcimer, Bill Mitchell's designs are an adventure playground for grown-ups, sound and lighting (Gregory Clarke and Malcolm Rippeth) can be over-dramatic, but are never found wanting, and the script that facilitates this constant flow of creativity (and in some respects is remarkably close to the Celtic legend) is by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy.
Tristan & Yseult continues at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 22 June. For further information visit www.wyp.org.uk
- Ron Simpson