"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: Tristan & Yseult @ Berkeley Rep

I've been wanting to write about this play for a while, and now that I've gone back to see it a second time, I think it's about time to put my love for it into words. It's a rare treat to see a live theater piece twice, and it usually requires repeating the experience pretty soon, before the show leaves town. But with Tristan & Yseult - or with any show by Kneehigh Theater, for that matter - there's so much richness to the production and so much happening on stage that the second time was as fresh as the first.

Actually, this particular play seems to invite you to return. It's based, after all, on a very old and very often retold story. The mythic, doomed love of the two main characters has been repeated in hundreds of different ways and forms, and Kneehigh's production acknowledges that while putting its own twist on the tale.

First, a little background: Kneehigh is a theater company based in Cornwall. Many of the actors have worked together for many years, and all of them are insanely talented. They sing, dance, play instruments, do acrobatics - oh, and act. During rehearsals, the entire company lives and works in a set of isolated barns in Cornwall, and their total unity and playfulness together onstage shows how important that practice is. Finally, they aim to tell stories from or about Cornwall itself, whether contemporary or ancient.

In the case of Tristan & Yseult, Kneehigh blends the old with the new. One character, King Mark, speaks in rhyming verse - a nod to the old tale - while the others speak normally. The production is suffused with music, including extracts from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, original music that hearkens back to medieval ballads, and pop hits about unrequited love from only a few decades ago.

Most of the songs are (flawlessly) delivered by a live band called the Club of the Unloved. The Unloved also become the chorus of the show, commenting on the action, and sometimes even stepping into the raised, circular platform in the middle of the stage to inform or encourage the central characters at crucial moments. The chorus could be a reference to another tradition of ancient storytelling - Greek drama - except that, over the course of the show, they become as sympathetic and individuated as the protagonists. With this modernist twist, Kneehigh's production turns our attention to the average, unremarkable characters. The Unloved, the show asserts, deserve to tell their story as much as the lovers Tristan and Yseult. Slowly, characters from the central story join the chorus - King Mark, who loves Yseult; the maid, Brangian, who loves King Mark; and others who reveal the tragic ripple effects of the central love story.

The production presents a very complex and sophisticated version of an old tale, but its style is often charmingly simple and transparent. There are no set changes, and the architecture of the set is plain to see: a central circle that draws our attention to the dichotomy between beloved heroes and unloved onlookers, a mast-like pole that evokes Tristan's sea voyage, a platform for the band, and a raised walkway for dramatic entrances and exits. In one scene, the chorus members transform the setting into a forest simply by donning some outrageous fern hats and manning a collection of dove hand puppets that flap around the stage.

Allowing us to see the mechanics of theatrical storytelling is one of Kneehigh's trademarks. Although the stage is constantly busy and the choreography complex, no element is extraneous. They never dumb things down or smooth things over for the audience. Instead, they present us with a delightful jumble of song, dance, and poetry, and of tragedy and comedy - just enough to spark our own imaginations - and allow us to fill in the rest. In this play in particular, which celebrates the average and the unloved, it is easy to slip completely into the world of the production, supplying emotions from our own experiences of love, or its lack. So, in substance and style, Tristan & Yseult is a remarkably accessible production for any kind of modern audience, though, at the same time, it recalls the particular history and heritage of Cornwall through an ancient tale.

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