Tristan & Yseult

Tristan & Yseult

Tristan & Yseult

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice
Writers: Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy
Main Season · Roda Theatre
November 22, 2013–January 18, 2014
West Coast Premiere

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

Kneehigh is back! Britain’s beloved theatre company returns to the Bay Area with a glorious story of love. King Mark rules with his head, until he falls head over heels for his enemy’s sister. Based on an ancient tale from Cornwall, Tristan & Yseult revels in forbidden desires, broken hearts, grand passions, and tender truths. It’s another marriage of gorgeous music and ingenious staging from the acclaimed creators of Brief Encounter and The Wild Bride. Embrace comedy and spontaneity in this West Coast premiere for an irresistible night of love!

Creative team

Emma Rice · Adaptor / Director
Carl Grose · Writer
Anna Maria Murphy · Writer
Bill Mitchell · Design
Malcolm Rippeth · Lighting Design
Gregory Clarke · Sound Design
Helen Atkinson · Associate Sound Design
Stu Barker · Composer
Aled Thomas · Company Stage Manager
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager
Paul Crewes · Producer
Ed Parry · Costume Supervisor
Ruth Shepherd · Costume Assistant
Sarah Wright · Prop Maker

Cast

Carly Bawden · Whitehands
Gareth Charlton · Lovespotter/ Brute / Animator
Andrew Durand · Tristan
Craig Johnson · Brangian / Morholt
Giles King · Frocin
Patrycja Kujawska · Yseult
Róbert Luĉkay · Lovespotter/ Brute / Animator
Mike Shepherd · King Mark
Russ Gold · Musician
Pat Moran · Musician
Ian Ross · Musical Director / Musician
Lizzy Westcott · Musician

Leaping man“An age-old tragic love triangle is made fresh and enchantingly vital in the Tristan & Yseult that opened Tuesday at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre. It’s also filled with all the remarkably inventive, eye-catching theatricality we’ve come to expect from England’s Kneehigh company, not to mention freewheeling comedy…Another great gift from the imaginative adapter-director Emma Rice and Kneehigh…Much of the tale is a raucous, bawdy adventure in the Cornish Wild West…Passion erupts gloriously…There are puppets. There are bits of sing-along and other audience participation. Often, Tristan is as immersive as a very enjoyable party. But it’s also a tale very smartly told…A gem!”—San Francisco Chronicle

“There are only so many love stories—love gained, love lost, love unrequited—and so many variations. How, then, do you make the story fresh? How do you reignite the passions and make your audience feel it all anew? The shortest answer to that query is: let Kneehigh tell the story…A landmark show…In addition to the acrobatics and some fun dancing, Kneehigh’s bag of tricks includes some spectacular music, most of it live…There’s much to love in Tristan & Yseult, and the performances are full of surprises and depth.”—Theater Dogs

“Wildly exciting…This is one of those rare shows that not only satisfies any possible theatrical demands, but has you grinning like an idiot and occasionally on the verge of tears, all in two hours…There are no particular rules in this world that marries comedy, theater, acrobatics, live music and—in the case of Tristan—an ancient story of star-crossed lovers…We’ve seen this sort of story a million times. But here, it is only the beginning of the show. It is embellished, decorated, gilded, wallpapered, flashed back, filled with a joyous array of music, sung, danced and basically dolled up as your ticket to a first-class flight of fancy!”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group

“Kneehigh isn’t interested in you merely enjoying the show—although it succeeds swimmingly there as well—but in thoroughly enveloping you in its weird and wonderful world. To that effect, Tristan & Yseult is the vehicle for that transformation, and it is entertainment at its best and brightest…Tristan & Yseult creates a collision of spectacle storytelling, circus, music, dance, and comedy to delight and challenge our conception of what ‘theater’ can be. The result is as jubilant and fun as it is moving and heartfelt…Do yourself a favor and go see it.”—East Bay Express

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Hearsay

MAN (A BIT RESIGNED): So what are we seeing tonight?
WOMAN: It’s called Tristan & Yseult.
MAN: Weren’t they at Ashkenaz last week?
WOMAN: It’s a love story.
MAN: Sounds like a Nordic law firm.
WOMAN: You’ll like it. It’s by the same people who did that play you liked a couple of years ago.
MAN: If it’s a play then we didn’t see it at Berkeley Rep.
WOMAN: We’ve seen plenty of plays/at the
MAN: I mean a play! A real play! Remember those? By real writers like Shakespeare and Chekhov.
WOMAN: What?! When we saw Romeo and Juliet last year you said if you had to sit through the play one more time you’d throw yourself off a balcony!
MAN: I was being/funny.
WOMAN: And you hate Chekhov! Every Chekhov play we see you’re asleep within 20 minutes.
MAN: I’m not sleeping…I’m thinking deep thoughts.
WOMAN: Maybe it was the snoring that fooled me.
MAN: Okay you made your point! But it’s like a toothache. It hurts when the tooth is there but when it’s gone, there’s something missing.
(PAUSE)
WOMAN: Did you take your pills this morning?
(PAUSE)
MAN: So what are we seeing?
WOMAN: It’s a love story. Set in the time of King Arthur. By the same people who did The Wild Bride.
MAN (HIS INTEREST PIQUED): The Wild Bride?
WOMAN: You loved The Wild Bride. You talked for weeks about the woman with the antlers on her head.
MAN (REMEMBERING, PERHAPS A BIT TOO HAPPY): She was very good.
WOMAN: And there was even an exposition, a rising action, a climax, and a denouement.
MAN: You think they’ll have that in the show tonight?
WOMAN: Well…there’s no guarantee. Sorry.
MAN: Do I have time for a drink?
WOMAN: We can order one at the new bar at the Theatre.
MAN: Really?
WOMAN: You ready?
MAN: Let’s go.

Prologue: from the Managing Director

One of the most satisfying moments in the season so far occurred for me at the closing performance of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a play about the messiness of familial love. A friend of mine, who has been estranged from her children for many years, walked out of the Theatre and said to me, “This play makes me want to try harder.”

I yearn for those moments when I know we’ve touched a nerve. They are as good, maybe better, than applause.

In the past few weeks, you probably received a packet in the mail asking you to consider making a gift to Berkeley Rep’s Annual Fund. You may be surprised to know that Berkeley Rep is a nonprofit organization. Some of you will think, “Why make a contribution? I already help Berkeley Rep by buying tickets.” I don’t want to minimize just how much we do appreciate your decision to attend Berkeley Rep when you have so many choices of cultural offerings in the Bay Area. However, every time you purchase a ticket, whether it cost you $10 as part of a school group, or $14.50 (our lowest single-ticket price), or $135 (our absolute highest ticket price), your ticket has been subsidized by someone else. Were it not for someone’s contribution, every ticket would cost more than $150. High as that may seem, it is still a bargain when one remembers that a ticket to a Broadway show now regularly sells for over $400.

When you contribute to Berkeley Rep you are supporting more than the productions you see on our stage. You are also supporting many of our other programs that do not, in themselves, produce income. Among them is The Ground Floor: Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work; our School of Theatre that serves 20,000 people annually and provides free- or low-cost programs for students in nine counties; our public education programs; the reduced rental program that enables community groups to use our facilities; our Teen Council; our services for the blind; our programs in juvenile hall; and more.

While Berkeley Rep takes seriously the responsibility to be good citizens, we have a larger mission. I hope you share with me the belief that while Berkeley Rep provides a tangible service to the community, we provide other kinds of benefits as well. We take great pride in producing work on our stage that challenges our audiences to see each other with open minds and open hearts. We are deeply committed to the notion that telling stories, thoughtfully and with intelligence, helps us remember our shared humanity and our shared values. We retain a deep-seated belief that by mirroring human behavior in all its vast complexity, theatre, like all art, helps us be the best kinds of humans we can be. Sometimes we motivate people to “try harder.”

As you contemplate which of the myriad organizations you will support as the season of giving draws to a close, I hope you will consider adding Berkeley Rep to your list. Every dollar you give helps us produce work that provides both tangible and intangible returns for our community.

Wishing you and yours a joy filled holiday season.

Warmly,

Susan Medak

Tristan & Yseult: A love for the ages

By Julie McCormick

You may have heard this story before: boy meets girl, they fall in love even though they shouldn’t, they marry other people, and everyone gets their heart broken. Every culture has its own legends of forbidden love and betrayal, and one of the most enduring is that of Tristan and Yseult. Though their names and the exact details of their story have varied over the centuries, these lovers continue to inspire and enthrall. Versions from the 12th and 13th centuries gloried in Tristan’s utter devotion to Yseult; his knightly prowess and steadfast ardor made him the unimpeachable ideal of courtly love. In the Victorian period, by contrast, Yseult was painted as a raven-haired temptress who seduced Tristan away from his long-suffering wife. Some adaptations feature a larger cast of characters or include various side adventures. And yet, no matter what language the story is told in or where it is set, its tale of love and loneliness speaks directly to our hearts.

The exact origins of this immortal romance are unclear. Apart from the very well-documented lives of a few nobles, precise details from the distant past remain murky, and are often indistinguishable from myth. Some sources say that it is a French story and that Tristan was originally from Brittany in Northern France; others assert that the tale has Celtic roots. There is evidence that there really was a Mark (also Marc, or Marke) of Cornwall, and he makes frequent reappearances in other legends as well. A standing stone near Fowey in Cornwall is called “The Tristan Stone:” some believe it to be where the knight is buried. When developers sought to move the stone in order to build houses in 2012, there was an enormous public outcry. This, as well as the fact that the story largely takes place in Cornwall, makes it most likely that the tale began here. However, Welsh myth refers to a warrior named Tristan, and there are Irish versions of the tale as well (which makes sense, given that Yseult was an Irish princess). Still others suggest that the Tristan myth began in Scotland, with the ancient Picts. Wherever the legend began and whether or not it tells the story of specific historical figures, it nevertheless rings with emotional truth.

The story first found its way onto paper (or vellum) in the late 12th century, in the royal halls of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was a great patron of the arts. Her court in Northern France was home to many troubadours and bards who entertained the nobles with tales of valor and courtly love. It’s unclear who penned the first composition, but we know that Thomas of Britain, Eilhart von Oberg, Béroul, and Marie de France wrote their own verses, and suspect that other versions which have since been lost also made their rounds.

From Cornwall and Brittany the tale quickly spread throughout Europe, carried on the tongues of courtiers and jangling on the lutes of jongleurs, minstrels that wandered the roads in search of a patron, or at least, a meal. The story made its way from France to Germany, Norway, Iceland, Italy, and Czechoslovakia, integrating itself with local culture. These newly rooted tales inspired their own legacies.

The saga of Tristan, Yseult, and Mark is often associated with Arthurian myths—in fact, some believe that the doomed threesome served as the blueprint for later stories about Guinevere, Lancelot, and Arthur. In other tales, the two sets of lovers were contemporaries, with Tristan serving as a knight in King Arthur’s Round Table. This may have something to do with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, which he likely wrote from various prisons in the 15th century. Le Mort d’Arthur influenced retellings of the Tristan and Arthurian legends up into contemporary times, including Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene (published at the very end of the 1500s) and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. When interest in the Middle Ages saw a resurgence in the 1850s, Malory’s text was a jumping-off point for many of these reinterpretations by poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson, Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, and artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John William Waterhouse.

Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde, is another of these seminal Tristan texts that has inspired generations of adaptors, including the makers of the 2006 film starring James Franco and Sophie Myles. Based on German writer Gottfried von Strassburg’s epic poem from 1220, Wagner’s piece focuses closely on the lovers’ relationship and the transcendent power of love, paring down an epic tale to a few simple moments of enormous psychological significance. Not that anyone could ever call the structure of a Wagner opera “simple,” however. In fact, Wagner himself did not refer to his works as operas at all, instead preferring to call them Musikdramen, or literally, “music dramas.” In these Musikdramen, the music, libretto, and stage directions (all written by Wagner) combined to tell a deliberate and unified story. In pieces like Tristan und Isolde, Wagner composed musical motifs for the characters, settings, and themes that would appear whenever they are onstage, and bend to reflect the mood, whether it is joyful, passionate, enraged, or devastated. Using dissonant harmonies and unresolved melodic progressions to underscore the lovers’ yearning, Tristan und Isolde is incredibly challenging to both play and sing. While now recognized as one of the most important pieces of Western classical music and a foundation for modern composition, Wagner’s opera was deemed “impossible” to play and laughed out of many of the major opera houses in Europe. It eventually did catch on in Germany, and had a successful 1886 run at the Met in New York.

Wagner’s life, like his work, was filled with passion and grandeur. A fervent nationalist, lavish spender, and ardent lover, Wagner never did anything by halves. Spurred on by debt collectors, warrants for his arrest, and failed love affairs, he wrote Tristan und Isolde in stops and starts across many years and countries. While staying at a cottage on the Wesendonck estate in Zurich (Wagner was evading arrest for his political activities in Germany), he befriended the Baron von Wesendonck’s wife, Mathilde, who was a poet and artist herself. Wagner set some of her poems to music; these were prototypes for themes in Tristan und Isolde. Perhaps their relationship is an instance of life informing art—Wagner’s wife Minna certainly thought so when she intercepted a letter between the two and accused them of having an affair. The resulting blow up blew Wagner to Venice and then Lucerne in Switzerland, where he finished the piece.

Maybe the reason that this story endures is that we find ourselves and our own stories within it. The thrill of falling in love and the ache of loneliness are all too familiar, and transcend the boundaries of history, culture, and language. Director Emma Rice has remarked that this is not a grand epic tale of romantic love that belongs only to the Tristan and Yseults of the world. It also belongs to the Brangians, Marks, and Frocins, to the lovespotters, to the stranger sitting in the next seat, and to you.

Forgotten Britons

By Sam Basger

There exists within the United Kingdom of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the remnants of what was once a proud fifth nation, jutting claw-like from the mainland of old Albion into the convergence of the English Channel and the Celtic Sea. Cornwall, a Celtic civilization with a unique history and its own native language, is only separated from the rest of the island by the River Tamar cutting across the southwest peninsula, and yet its distant removal from the “mainland” dates back to the end of the Roman occupation of Britain in the early fifth century. In the words of former long-term resident, author Daphne du Maurier: “Cornwall, little known, of small significance, remains the tail of England, still aloof and rather splendidly detached.” Largely left to their own devices by the gradually developing monarchy of the greater country, Cornish culture and traditions flourished far beyond the Cornish pasties, meat and vegetable filled hand pies, that are ubiquitous across Britain.

A blurring of history and mythology is alive in Cornwall, where it is believed that kings like Arthur walked, where heroes like Tristan loved, and where magical creatures like giants, piskies, and spriggans roamed the land. These are stories that have been told and retold in a hundred different versions in just as many tongues. This creative breeding ground is both the physical and spiritual home of Kneehigh, whose work is by no small measure influenced by its place of origin. As centuries passed, the land beyond the Tamar became another piece in England’s jigsaw, swallowed into a network of shires and counties and leaving us wondering what exactly was this “aloof” Cornwall, and what is it today?

To chart Cornish history one must look back at the origins of the First Britons, inhabitants sometimes referred to as Celts. The secluded southwestern corner of the island became the ideal place for the Celts to fend off Saxon conquerors, the environment acting as a natural bastion which held Germanic influence at bay for hundreds of years. By defending against incursion, locals were effectively protecting their culture and way of life, fossilizing practices and burying their roots deep into the ground below. Cornwall, or Kernow in the Brythonic Cornish language that is closely associated with Welsh, established its own polity to govern itself and its citizens. In this free Cornwall, an agrarian, seafaring, and self-sufficient community thrived, harvesting prized resources like tin and trading its wealth for other valued commodities. The Cornish were also spiritually connected to their land, seeing signs in all the rocks, hills, and valleys that the earth goddess laid out before them and heeding her advice. These pagan beliefs underscored the daily activity of the people, who fiercely honored their traditions with a fiery independence and a stubborn pride. The Saxons would not be denied forever though, and in the first half of the ninth century Cornwall was conquered, officially becoming an extension of England. That is not to say that the Cornish were immediately assimilated, though this did eventually occur. While their autonomy may have been compromised, they were still recognized as a native community and eventually a Duke of Cornwall was designated as mediator to the Crown. As Christianity began to creep into Cornish custom, folklore was appropriated from its Celtic roots: standing or leaning stones, for instance, were no longer the leftovers of giant’s play, but rather interpreted to be persons frozen by the wrath of god for dancing on a Sunday. Well into the mid-16th century, the Cornish still possessed their own styles of dress, their own naming-customs, their own agricultural practices, and their own games and pastimes. Despite the fact that, by the year 1700, native speakers had dwindled to a few thousand in favor of the more comprehensive English language, the myths and legends survived the translation and thus the culture lived on.

Like many indigenous cultures, a true sense of Cornishness is imbedded in the stories passed on from generation to generation. The peddler of these tales was the drollteller, who said or sang his “drolls” in exchange for room and board. These were stories of magic, of the encounters between mankind and the supernatural, and the creatures that inhabited Cornwall have had many incarnations. It was in Cornwall that a certain boy unwittingly raised a mammoth beanstalk into the clouds, that a small demonic being bartered for a human soul with three guesses at his name, that mischievous piskies—or pixies as they became widely known—would perform good deeds in secret, shrouded by the dark of night. The spriggans, vicious little sprites, were the ancestors of goblins and even, arguably of a more famous creation, who lurked in caves pining fatuously over his “Precious.” Or perhaps he has more in common with the knockers, the pale, photosensitive elves found deep in the tin mines, but then maybe their predilection for harvesting minerals more closely resembles the dwarves. What is evident, however, is the evolution of Cornish folklore into the mainstream, penetrating the contemporary zeitgeist as fables, fairy tales, or even simply as assumptive history, as is the case with King Arthur and Tristan.

In her book, Vanishing Cornwall, du Maurier discusses how the story of King Arthur, Cornwall’s most eminent son, is curiously interwoven with that of another Cornish king, Mark. The fortress at Castle Dore, Mark’s residence, was the former stronghold of the chief Gorlois. In the Arthurian myth, Gorlois is murdered, and his wife Igraine is seduced by Uther Pendragon, subsequently becoming the mother of Arthur. Ironically, when Arthur becomes leader, his wife Guinevere is herself seduced by Lancelot, a knight of the Round Table at Arthur’s court. And of course this recurring theme of seduction and betrayal extends to King Mark, who sends his nephew Tristan to bring him an Irish bride and, well, Kneehigh’s performance will explain the rest.

The passion that pulsates through Cornwall has literally become the stuff of legend and fertile ground for Kneehigh’s creative endeavors. Tristan & Yseult was developed as an outdoor experience, subject to the elements and with a direct connection to the land that holds the story’s memories. Kneehigh is informed by the rich history and unique identity of the past nation of Cornwall, with the company’s members describing themselves as “outsiders,” a nod to the isolation that once protected Cornish culture from extinction. Cornwall, today a shire with a population of over a half million people and a fashionable vacation spot for big-city dwellers, still bears a few birthmarks and a small but staunch nationalistic party determined to reinstate Cornish language, customs, and even political autonomy. Companies like Kneehigh function as ambassadors for Cornwall. As modern droll-tellers, they remind us of the importance of unearthing the past to fully inhabit the present—of paying respect to the pastoral pocket of Britain that ushered these fantastic myths into the world. From the tail end of England, we await with baited breath the many more stories that Cornwall has to tell.

Not so boring theatre

Insights from Kneehigh’s joint artistic directors

Emma Rice and Mike Shepherd talk about what first attracted the company to the story of Tristan and Yseult, and the process of remounting the show 10 years after its first production.

Emma Rice
Adaptor & director and joint artistic director of Kneehigh

Could you tell me a little about how it’s been coming back to directing Tristan & Yseult?

Returning to Tristan & Yseult is, in turn, a joy and an agony. I love this piece and marvel at the fusion of comedy, tragedy, chaos, and sensuality. It is a pleasure and a delight to return to old friends and also to enjoy some new ones. However, this is a personal piece and it is laced with my own experience and my own heartbreak. Returning 10 years on, doesn’t numb the pain, no! Ten years only compounds it, with more experience, more love, more laughter, and more understanding to weave throughout.

Are you discovering new things in the show? How has it changed from last time?

Certainly. We are all 10 years older and that experience informs the piece. There is a freedom in returning and a freshness. We have also been working with some new actors who bring a new outlook and a new chemistry. But, is it still the Tristan & Yseult we know and love? Yes.

Could you tell me a little bit about the history of the show?

We first made Tristan & Yseult as a site-specific piece. It was to perform in two outdoor venues only: Rufford in Nottinghamshire and Restormel Castle in Cornwall—a wonderful, circular, ruined castle, perched on a hilltop and open to the elements. It became immediately apparent that this show touched audiences in a very special way, that this ancient story resonated deeply and strongly in the modern psyche. It was spotted by the National Theatre who invested in the production to take it indoors, to make it more physical and more musical. This artistic investment really took the show, and the company, on to a new level, enabling us to develop the musicality of our work and create and tour on a larger scale. It went on to tour nationally and internationally, and wherever in the world we go, this story touches the hearts of all.

How has your relationship with the piece changed, six years since its last tour?

No. It is simply one of the most beloved shows ever.

What do you think/hope people will feel on seeing the show?

People will laugh and cry. They will recognize themselves and those they love. It will take them on a journey that will remind them they are part of a community and are living, loving, flawed, and fantastic human beings.

What made you decide that Brangian should be played by a male actor? Was it a conscious decision, even?

Oh yes, it was very conscious. I have long been angered by the obsession with beauty and feel, not only that this is not true to life, but also stops the collective imagination. When we see a pretty, thin, young girl play a virginal maid, nothing is challenged, nothing is opened, nothing is revealed. When I give this part to a large middle-aged man, the opposite happens. We laugh at him/her, and then we imagine, and then we feel. This brute becomes so frail and so vulnerable that it breaks our hearts. This is something you can only do on stage. On film, it would be weird; but here, in the world of the imagination, the audience can be transported, surprised, and deeply moved.

What’s next for Kneehigh?

Tristan & Yseult tours to the U.S. and Brief Encounter to Australia and the U.S. We are working on a new version of The Beggar’s Opera written by Carl Grose and developing a project with Michael Morpurgo. Exciting times.

What’s next for the arts?!

We will all have to get creative in order to survive. These are tough times and nothing is certain anymore. We will have to work hard, be bold and brave and try to surprise ourselves and our audiences. We mustn’t retreat to a comfort zone, but fight for our place in society. At Kneehigh, we believe in the three ‘R’s; reinvention, regeneration, and revolution.

Mike Shepherd
Joint artistic director and founder of Kneehigh

What attracted you to the story as a company?

The story fundamentally asked the question “can you truly love two people?” and we were fascinated by how such an ancient story should seem non-judgemental. The love triangle plot could almost be a contemporary viewpoint from a TV soap opera! We were also very interested in why Whitehands lies with such tragic consequences near the end of the story.

Could you tell us about the portrayal of Cornwall in Tristan & Yseult?

Cornwall was a kingdom in itself, and it was the richest kingdom in the world for 300 years at the time this story was set. Tin was more valuable than gold, and Cornwall was at the center of the world trade route. Like the tin from Cornwall, the story of Tristan and Yseult spread all over the world to many different cultures and gave rise to many different versions. There are rumors that Shakespeare was influenced by the story when he wrote Romeo & Juliet, and you can see why.

We wanted to show Cornwall’s side of history as it doesn’t get taught in schools—English history is taught in schools. Did you know, for instance, that the first university was in Cornwall, that the British Postal Service, the first of its kind in the world, was conceived by a man from St. Blazey? That the first gas-lit house was in Redruth? That no record exists of any formal annexation of Cornwall to England?

I also never knew that the English took brutal and desperate measures to subdue the rebellious nature of the Cornish—burning the university, Glasney College, destroying the Cornish Parliament, censoring language and religion and even, like Herod, murdering baby boys…extraordinary that I never knew but I was taught English history not Cornish.

Now picture this country etched on a map.
Then regard what you see as nothing but crap.
Forget what you’ve been taught or think you know:
The centre of everything’s here—Kernow.
—Carl Grose/Anna Maria Murphy

How has theatre in the UK changed in the past 10 years?

The “bonanza” time of subsidy and lottery funding has now passed, and this obviously has had an effect on UK theatre. There is still funding for bricks and mortar, but less support for art and artists. Many companies have, sadly, gone to the wall, and the phrase “risk averse” has become prevalent. For theatre makers like ourselves, this is, at times, hard to manage.

It feels, however, more important than ever to keep pushing the boundaries in our quest to entertain, provoke, and transport our audiences, and I am encouraged by the appetite people still have for something different. Amongst the predictable and safe, theatre will always reinvent—it needs to!

What were your inspirations?

At the time of making the show in the early 2000s, Emma and I were really into Tarantino and films like Pulp Fiction: bloody good story telling and great music. This Tristan & Yseult is a Tarantino version of a medieval story.

Does the fact that Tristan & Yseult was first performed outdoors at Restormel Castle change how it was made?

This show was made to be outdoors. The structure is invented for the outside: the storytelling, dance, action, and music are outward facing. The direct, honest acting exemplified by Craig Johnson (as Brangian) in this show is to do with being in daylight and being able to see the audience. As the darkness falls the story darkens with it and becomes more introspective—the fourth wall comes in a bit. The audience become more like outside observers toward the end of the piece.

Can you tell us a little about the theme of love in Tristan & Yseult?

Tristan & Yseult is an exploration of the nature of love: the thin line between love and hate, and the dangerous state of falling in love. The dizziness and intoxication of first love, and the next stage…does the relationship deepen or strengthen, or does it get boring? How do you make the decision to stay with someone without the intoxication of the first throes of love? When the love potion wears off?

Watch now

See us on TV

Check out our new 15-second TV ad for Tristan & Yseult.

Sneak peek: Tristan & Yseult

Kneehigh is back with its signature hit show. Get a glimpse of gloriously magical Tristan & Yseult!

Introducing Tristan & Yseult

Michael Leibert Artistic Director Tony Taccone introduces Tristan & Yseult.

Listen up

Program articles
Want to listen to select articles from the program? Play these audio files online—or download and listen to them.

Music
Hear songs from the show.

See photos

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Photos by Steve Tanner

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Additional resources

Our literary department has compiled this select list of tidbits to enrich your experience of Tristan & Yseult.

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Kneehigh

The innovative Cornish company at the helm of this production has been operating since 1980, when a school teacher began running extracurricular theatre workshops. For each project, Kneehigh builds a team that then retreats to barns in Cornwall’s countryside, where the isolation provides a real and natural focus for their flights of imagination. Founder Mike Shepherd states that “this is not a conceit; it is a radical choice that informs all aspects of our work…we always try to start the creative process at these barns, to be inspired by our environment and where we work.” Today these versatile storytellers are a globally touring phenomenon, rejoining us here in Berkeley to perform their beloved version of Tristan & Yseult.

Gateway to the company

  • Kneehigh’s official website, featuring information about their process, their company members, and their past, present, and future performances.

Kneehigh: Making a show

  • Co-Artistic Director Emma Rice explains Kneehigh’s process of creating a performance.

Kneehigh’s digital innovation

  • A Guardian article explaining Kneehigh’s new digital frontier with the development of a cell phone app, which triggers audio files that narrate stories based on your location within a specified area. With this innovation, Kneehigh successfully fuse a live and digital artistic experience.

Versions of the story

While Kneehigh have their own unique way of telling a story through performance, the tale of Tristan and Yseult (also spelled Iseult or Isolde, among others) is one that has had many forms over the last 800 or so years. Whether sung as an opera, read as a poem, or seen as a film or painting, the story’s universal themes of love, deception, fate, loyalty, and revenge always resonate with their audience.

Tristan und Isolde opera synopsis

  • The Metropolitan Opera offers a detailed synopsis of Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde.

Tristan und Isolde: Prelude

  • Zubin Mehta conducting the Prelude to Wagner’s opera, performed by the National Theatre of Munich.

The Romance of Tristan and Iseult

  • The complete translated text written by historian Joseph Bédier, a French scholar renowned for his revival of medieval tales and French literature. The book was first published in Paris in 1900.

Painting by Salvador Dali

  • An abstract interpretation by the Spanish surrealist, completed in 1944.

“Tristan and Isolde. The Love Sin.”

  • The poem written by Lady Jane Wilde, pseudonym Speranza, mother of Oscar Wilde and an Irish poet with an interest in Celtic mythology.

Tristan + Isolde (2006), directed by Kevin Reynolds

  • This contemporary film, starring James Franco and Sophia Myles, has a few key differences from the version presented by Kneehigh, including the circumstances in which the lovers meet and the situation that ultimately divides them.

Cornwall

The physical and spiritual home of both Kneehigh and the story of Tristan & Yseult is a fascinating slice of ancient Celtic culture. This relatively unknown corner in the southwest of Britain has fostered its own myths, legends, and fairy tales that are known throughout the world.

Timeline of Cornish history

  • A timeline provided by the Cornish Council, the local governing body of the British region of Cornwall.

Tales from Cornwall

  • A sneak peek into an anthology of tales about the supernatural inhabitants of Cornwall, such as giants, piskies, spriggins, and knockers, and their interactions with the locals, for better or worse.

Visit Cornwall

  • The official tourism site for Cornwall, featuring a plethora of videos, including aerial and walking tours of the beautiful countryside.

Love

It may be all you need, but what exactly is it? The emotion that we exercise every day or relentlessly pursue is the basis of most good stories. Certainly it is what united and divided the heroes of our tale.

Five theories on love

  • This Guardian article assembles five experts from different fields, including a physicist, a psychotherapist, a philosopher, a romantic novelist, and a nun, to provide their opinions on the nature of love.

What is love?

  • Written by Mark Vernon for Aeon Magazine, this essay discusses what the author describes as “triangular love”—the third point of the triangle referring to the life outside the relationship between two people.

A Natural History of Love by Diane Ackerman

  • A thoughtful compendium on the physical, chemical, bestial, recreational, insatiable emotion that we humans call love.