Soaked in Cornish brine, equal parts Celtic romance and open-sea anarchy, Kneehigh‘s “love story for the unloved” finally makes its way to Glasgow, where its outdoorsy spirit is dampened only slightly by the confining walls of the Citizens’ Theatre.
Based on the oft-spun love story of the same name, this gloriously silly and affecting ensemble piece turns storytelling expectation on its head, inviting the audience to view the legendary lovers through the eyes of those they spurned. The show has a reputation. Fourteen years of touring, rave reviews, the production that made director Emma Rice’s name… No pressure guys. Happily however, Tristan & Yseult lives up to the hype.
The story may be legendary, but Kneehigh’s adaptation is deliciously lacking in romantic platitudes. Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy’s script is poetic like a sea-shanty, spinning a tale of love, grief and loneliness that prods knowingly at our hearts. Historical accuracy is no concern here – from the moment we step inside, we are in the Club of the Unloved: half neon-lit jazz bar, half steerage-class of The Love Boat. Telling the story is a chorus of endearing archetypal nerds, all-singing all-dancing balaclava-clad bird-watchers – “love-spotters” – led by the bitterly pristine Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward). This tongue-in-cheek chorus lead us through the story with boisterous energy, utilising all of Bill Mitchell’s innovative set. Actors sing, dance, leap, mime their fight scenes with Tom & Jerry-ish enthusiasm, all to an eclectic live soundtrack of Wagner, Nick Cave and Daft Punk.
In the centre of this madness, Tristan (Dominic Marsh) and Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) are grounded, young, beautiful. The chemistry sizzles, and amongst their hapless peers they literally fly, hoisted on pulleys as they spin higher and higher, drunk on wine and love.
It’s spectacular, but never overwhelming, thanks in large to the fantastic cast, who traverse the physical and emotional demands of the play effortlessly. From bawdy slapstick to everyday heartbreak, the performers carry the audience with them; we are never left hanging, even when various characters find themselves strung up by their ankles.
As the theatre company that revolutionised outdoor staging, viewing a Kneehigh show indoors will always feel a little lacking. A furious breeze, late-afternoon sun, an iconic sea-facing view would elevate Tristan & Yseult to heartbreaking levels. However, the Citizens’ audience were on fine form, game for a laugh with their distant Celtic cousins. Seriously Kneehigh – what’s taken you so long?