“There hasn’t been a show in long time,” my friend said as we exited the theatre, “that surprised me like this one did.”
I’m struggling to put into words my thoughts on Kneehigh’ s Tristan and Yseult which played in Boston via Arts Emerson, for I left the theater not with words, but with images resonating behind my eyes and in my body. The whirl of a dress. White silk. Rain jackets. Bodies moving toward each other like magnets. I know I will be thinking about this production for a long, long time.
Kneehigh is a company founded in Cornwall, England. They were formed out of a group of people (not trained actors) who had a desire to create theatre for the community around them. Slowly their innovated and audience driven work garnered widespread respect and is now a highly regarded touring company in England. They say on their website, “ (our) themes are universal and local, epic and domestic,” and from watching Tristan and Yseult I could not agree more.
Tristan and Yseult is a 12th century tale of forbidden love between a cornish knight (Tristan) and the Irish woman who is set to marry his King (Yseult). It is said to have been derived from the Lancelot – Arthur – Guinevere mythos that has created the backbone for so much of our western romantic literature. Wagner created the opera Tristan und Isolde which is considered one of the most influential pieces of music of all time. Kneenigh’s production of Tristan and Yseult manages to be simultaneously intimate and colloquial one moment and sweepingly operatic the next.They did not restrict themselves to a single size of expression. As emotions grew and changed, so did the way they expressed them. There was such a care to the physical vocabulary of the piece, in which every prop, every set piece was imbued with life. There was love alive on that stage. A love for the story, a love for each other, a love for the theatre. It is a kind of atmosphere and experience that I dream of being a part of myself.
The more theatre I see the more I begin to hone my personal beliefs about what makes theatre work. What it is that to me, can elevate a production to a work that is unforgettable? What I’ve found is that I adore the theatrical. A play that understands the medium of the stage and uses tools, big or small, to tell the story they want to tell.
Theatre is a medium that encompasses so many other art forms that if used correctly, can be limitless in its scope of expression. There is a trap that one can fall into when creating works that if theatre seeks to tell truth, the truth somehow must be ‘realistic’ for an audience to digest. That is nowhere near true. The truth of a thing is often the farthest from what is tangible or represented in our daily lives. Deep truths about what it means to be human lie somewhere in that space between awake and asleep, where everything is real and nothing makes sense, that space that art probes and explores so that audiences can find whatever contemporary catharsis that exists for them.
Kneehigh took the possibilities of theatre into their hands and strived to tell the best possible story they could tell. When the two lovers were drunk on their love potion, why not have them swing from ropes so they could barely keep their feet on the ground? Why not directly address the audience in order to make sure they are invested? Why not give the audience white balloons to release into the crowd? Watching, it seemed to me that every idea they had, they followed through with. There was a freedom of expression that I see so rarely nowadays. That expression that I often catch myself stifling. With all this fuss made about what is “produceable,” what is “feasible,” to have a company dedicated to reaching an audience through the power of theatre, regardless of what might seem easy is commendable. My father often tells the story that when I was about seven I came home from school delighted beyond belief, and my dad asked me why I was so happy to which I replied, “ Dad, we have to make a poster for homework and my teacher says we can use any color paper!” The excitement over possibilities, of any color paper, of the freedom to tell your story any way you want, should be cultivated. Companies like Kneehigh let you know that it is possible.
As my high school drama teacher would say before every show we did, “there is magic in the theatre.” When I’m surrounded by theatre all day, every day it can become a task, another item on a to do list. Then a show can come around like Tristan and Yseult that sparks my creative juices. That makes me excited to be doing what I’m doing. That pushes me to make work that is worthy of sharing with the world. Work with heart. When we care, the theatre can be magic.