Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Kneehigh's Tristan and Yseult

Tristan, Andrew Durand, photo by Steve Tanner

This dizzy, delightful, dazzling play is preceded by a few heartache melodies delivered torpidly by Carly Bawden outfitted in a 1960s version of stewardess garb - white gloves, yellow jacket and skirt and a round yellow cap, suggesting an antiseptic journey. (Not true!)

In her cabaret, the "Club of the Unloved," she is accompanied by a quartet suspended above stage, and she delivers Patsy Cline's Crazy and Roy Orbison's Only the Lonely with Wagnerian opera thrown in to keep one off balance. The play begins with a group of "lovespotters" in rain gear and hoods who peer through binoculars towards the audience suggesting inclement weather and gloomy life.

Immediately, it reminds me of Alex Colville's painting, To Prince Edward Island, 1965, portraying a woman on board a ship looking through massive binoculars with lenses mysteriously grey, as if she is trying to discern some spark of life - Colville's realism with an edge, unsettling simplicity, disquieting tranquility verging on bleakness and best summed up in his own words, "I see life as inherently dangerous. I have an essentially dark view of the world and human affairs...Anxiety is the normality of our age."

Bawden would agree. The singers, musicians and actors meander about, often interacting with the audience, at one point distributing balloons to be blown up and knocked about. There are ropes and pulleys employed to raise people into the air as well as padded landing areas for gymnastic manouevers worthy of Cirque du Soleil.

One is immersed in magic, and in the second act, it becomes more powerful, ending with Whitehands crying out, "Where does all the wasted love go?"

As Whitehands, Bawden doubles as narrator and player in this tale, a wild, bawdy affair in untamed Cornwall, ruled during war by supposedly rational King Mark (Stuart Goodwin) who gives in to his heart. Voyages and battles with Irish invaders unfold on a ship's-deck, the stage round and quite bare except for a tall mast with a series of metal gang planks lurking behind.

Andrew Durand's melancholy Tristan, "born in sorrow," helps Mark defeat the invading Irish king Morholt, played as an amusing CEO corporate take-over by Craig Johnson. Mark sends faithful Tristan to bring him Morholt's sister Yseult as his bride, and in an ensuing scene with two identical bottles, one containing love potion, the other sweet wine, one may guess at the complications.

Love is examined from all angles - winning, losing, inflicting pain and ecstasy along with friendship, betrayal, recrimination and forgiveness. Untamed passion with Tristan erupts on the vessel just as domestic love with the King for Yseult is relished on land. Johnson in drag as her maid Brangian cleverly moves from silliness to malaise. Giles King, King Mark's courtier Frocin, with his piercing gaze, is both hilarious and nasty in the ensuing conflict.

The magic never ends in this play from the preliminary music to knife fights, blood, Whitehands' clever pun (I have fate in my hands as she tries to heal Tristan), ropes, pulleys, acrobatics, props - model boats and birds, balloons, sing-along's, frenetic dancing, men clad in modern dress suits and trousers with running shoes (Tristan's are red), women more in 60s hippie garb, wandering musicians playing a clarinet and's wonderful!

A Lovespotter, Gareth Charlton, photo by Steve Tanner   Lovers Tristan , Andrew Durand, and Yseult, Etta Murfitt, in Kneehighs production from Cornwall, England, photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp   Lovers Tristan , Andrew Durand, and Yseult, Etta Murfitt, in Kneehighs production from Cornwall, England, photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp   Musicians in Kneehighs Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Steve Tanner   Tristan, Andrew Durand, tended to by Whitehands, Carly Bawden, photo by Steve Tanner

Craig Johnson is delightfully mean as the raiding Irishman Brangian and comic as the female Morholt, maid to Yseult. Andrew Durand is convincing as the French-speaking Tristan who saves the day for King Mark, defeating the Irish, but falls in love with Mark's Irish prize, Yseult advancing complications and his ultimate death. Carly Bawden as Whitehands, the sultry singer, the unrequited love of Tristan and the narrator is terrific in her cool detachment in Act I contrasted by her passionate anger at the end. Giles King, a nasty, dangerous figure throughout the play, is the ultimate bureaucrat as Frocin, sucking up to King Mark to the bizarre extent of documenting Yseult's betrayal by being hoisted with rope and pulley to tape record and photograph the lovers engaged in coitus, much to the chagrin of the King. Etta Murfitt excels as Yseult, torn between intoxicating love of Tristan and allegiance to the King. Gareth Charlton and Robert Luckay as Lovespotters, Brutes and Animators are wonderful in their roles, and the play hugely succeeds on the collective contributions of each player as they help refine the magic.

Live music composed by Stu Barker is performed by Russ Gold, Pat Moran, Ian Ross and Lizzy Westcott. The creative team includes Music Director, Ian Ross, Designer, Bill Mitchell, Lighting Designer, Malcolm Rippeth and Sound Designer, Gregory Clarke. Tristan & Yseult is directed and adapted by Emma Rice with writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy. The production features an ensemble of eight performers mentioned above.

Carley Bawden Whitehands
Gareth Charlton Lovespotter/Brute/Animator
Andrew Durand Tristan
Russ Gold Musician
Stuart Goodwin King Mark
Craig Johnson Brangian/Morholt
Giles King Frocin

Robert Luckay Lovespotter/Brute/Animator
Pat Moran Musician
Etta Murfitt Yseult
Ian Ross Musician
Lizzy Westcott Musician

Kneehigh's director and adapter Emma Rice reflects, "As the story unfolds, I realize there is not one person in that audience who doesn't profoundly recognize something in the situation: to love someone that you shouldn't, to betray someone you love, to be betrayed, to be left and, most painful, to be unloved. This suddenly is not an epic tale of grand romantic love, held at arm's length from our own experience, but a tender unravelling of love in all its beautiful and painful forms ... These are at the heart of this production, because, if we have all known love, we have also known the opposite."

The Jentes Family Courtyard Theater Inventive and spirited, Kneehigh is renowned for its unique brand of wonder-filled ensemble storytelling. From Cornwall, England, the company has originated such runaway hits as The Wild Bride and Brief Encounter. Kneehigh has left their mark internationally from London's National Theater and the Sydney Festival, to the Royal Shakespeare Company and Broadway's Studio 54. Chicago Shakespeare Theater welcomes Kneehigh as part of CST's World's Stage series, which brings the best of the world's theater to Chicago and CST productions to stages around the globe.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater occupies a beautiful setting on Navy Pier with a view of the waterfront through a three-tiered lounge enclosed by glass, offering patrons a striking architectural panorama which includes nearby yachts owned by multi-millionaires such as the massive Odyssey II anchored here. I watch it take a full four minutes to slowly turn and head out into Lake Michigan, transporting a horde of sleekly dressed young people celebrating a prom.

The Jentes Family Courtyard Theater is a 500-seat courtyard-style theater inspired by the theaters in early modern England where Shakespeare's plays were first staged, and it evokes the design of Shakespeare's Globe in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. It features three seating levels - Main Floor, Dress Circle and Gallery, which wrap around the thrust stage, fostering an intimate, immediate relationship between actors and audience. Situated in a cozy corner of the lobby, "the Pub" is a good spot for a pint and conversation between acts. Near the Theater's Pub audience members will find Ed Paschke's Sonnet, an oil on linen painting created by celebrated Chicago artist Ed Paschke (1939-2004). Commissioned by the Theater and on permanent display in the lobby, it depicts three striking portraits of Shakespeare in one frame. As one walks by, Shakespeare's eyes follow!

Tristan & Yseult Trailer

Tristan & Yseult Trailer

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