Kneehigh Theater brings innovative ‘Tristan’ to World’s Stages
By Mary Houlihan For Sun-Times Media March 26, 2014 11:10AM
Tristan (Andrew Durand) and Yseult (Etta Murfitt) in star in Kneehigh’s “Tristan & Yseult,” a World’s Stage production from Cornwall, England, which will be presented at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. | Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Tristan & Yseult
♦ March 30-April 13
♦ Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 E. Grand
♦ Tickets, $60-$70
♦ (312) 595-5600;
Updated: April 29, 2014 6:15AM
Over the past decade, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s World Stages series has become an important venue for some very exciting work by companies from around the globe, including the National Theatre of Scotland, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Galway’s Druid Theatre, London’s Globe Theatre, Paris’ La Comedie Francaise and South Africa’s Farber Foundry.
Now add to that list Kneehigh, a theater company tucked away in Cornwall in the southwest corner of England. For its Chicago debut, the company will stage its groundbreaking production of “Tristan & Yseult,” directed and adapted by co-artistic director Emma Rice with writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy.
Founded by Mike Shepherd in 1980, Kneehigh has grown from its Cornish origins to become one of the United Kingdom’s most enterprising and innovative theater companies without ever losing its ensemble spirit. The company continues to draw inspiration from Cornwall’s landscape, history, people and culture.
First staged in 2006, “Tristan & Yseult” has become Kneehigh’s best-known work, a cult favorite of fans who sing the praises of the company’s creative energy. It’s an ancient legend about a Cornish prince (Tristan) and an Irish princess (Yseult) who are consumed by a dangerous, adulterous love affair. The tale is thought to have influenced the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere; today it’s most often thought of as the Wagner opera “Tristan & Isolde.”
Kneehigh wanted to bring the classic tale back to its roots.
“We thought it was time to retake possession of the story and retell it straight out of Cornwall,” Rice says. “Tristan & Yseult” was first created as an outdoor piece and performed in a ruined Cornwall castle, and it has since taken on a life of its own. “The tale worked its magic on us,” Rice says. “The production has grown and developed and changed.”
To say the piece is wildly inventive is an understatement. Writers Grose and Murphy wrestled Medieval ideas and iambic pentameter into a working script, while Rice and the actors explored the themes of the ancient Celtic tale. There is drama and comedy, words and music, physical theater, circus skills and dance.
“The great thing about these ancient stories is that they’re a mess,” Rice says during a phone conversation from London. “They’ve been retold and retold over generations, over centuries, and turned into quite complicated forms. So I wasn’t terribly respectful of it because I think it exists to be retold.”
While there is “fantastic text woven throughout the piece,” Rice says from the start she never intended to simply rely on words to bring “Tristan & Yseult” to life.
“There are whole scenes with no words, whole scenes told with music,” Rice notes. “The piece really is kind of punk rock in its deconstruction.”
Rice, who is one of Britain’s most dynamic theater directors, joined Kneehigh in 1994 and laughingly says she “still feels like the new girl.” She ended up there by chance and fell in love with the place, the people and the company. “There’s very little theater being created in the U.K. with a regional voice,” Rice says. “And I feel incredibly lucky to have found Kneehigh and helped extend its voice.”
While Rice chooses the starting point for the creation of a show such as “Tristan & Yseult,” it is the collaboration with the entire company — an organic mix of writers, designers and actors — that brings a grain of an idea to life. She says she finds inspiration in like-minded innovative companies and artists such as Britain’s Complicite, Canada’s Robert Lepage and German choreographer Pina Bausch.
“I think Kneehigh has become good at telling stories in a way that is all our own,” Rice says. “Everything is created by the company so it’s hard to detect which idea comes from where. And I’m at the center of it all giving out inspiration and collecting the ideas that work and assembling them into a whole.”