Their twitter handle declares @WeAreKneehigh and no production of theirs embodies this more than ‘Tristan and Yseult’, their trademark production. Adapted and directed by Kneehigh’s Emma Rice, this tour celebrates the show’s 10th anniversary. It pieces together seemingly incompatible parts, with a miss-mash soundtrack of blaring opera and Kneehigh’s folk-roots live music, acrobatics, an anonymous narrator (Whitehands) in a 50s, lemon full-skirted suit, together with the trainspotting-esque, nerdy chorus of the ‘unloved’.
The tragic story is told chaotically and its audience-interaction is abundant and gleeful, as the cast instruct us to blow up white balloons and release them like confetti at King Mark’s wedding to Yseult.
I last encountered this production at school, as an ASM, and we got to use helium to blow up our red balloons – the stand out feature of working in the show was, of course, drinking the helium at the end of the night. The soundtrack was very much more garage band and the setting had a more studio feel, though was actually in the main theatre, with full lighting rig etc. I also know Kneehigh’s soundtrack to the play intimately, from the album I bought many years ago. I don’t know how much my comparisons with that more grungy, heart-wrenching production at school, in which Tristan and Yseult were (via the production) a real-life couple, and also my familiarity with the Kneehigh songs, played against my experience at Bristol Old Vic this time around. But the intense love story and its tragedy were lost on me, my sympathies left unengaged. The chemistry was particularly lacking between Tristan (Tristan Sturrock, who so won me over in Brief Encounter) and Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska, who unimpressed me in Red Shoes). Yseult ran round and round the central circular platform onstage to reach her love, in what looked like a spoof of Chariots of Fire. I found Mike Shepherd unconvincing as King Mark – his voice didn’t carry with resonance, or even have an intimation of imposing quietness, and he seemed to move languidly about the stage without purposeful conviction. I hate to say it, because he was so fantastic dressed-up as the pumpkin in Midnight’s Pumpkin, and of course he is the founder of Kneehigh.
As nearly all the critics have said, it is a joyous production with the company coming together in moments that entertained, the lovespotters being genuinely endearing and comical. But the essential sympathy with most of the lead characters was almost completely lost on me. It was only Whitehands, unloved in her lemon outfit, with a fantastic voice, who engaged me and left me feeling any emotion other than benign amusement.
Maybe I’ve seen too much Kneehigh. From Brief Encounter, Red Shoes, Steptoe & Son, and Hansel & Gretel, to The Wild Bride and Midnight’s Pumpkin which I saw every night over the summer of 2011 volunteering at the Asylum in Cornwall, and working on Tristan and Yseult at school, Kneehigh’s tropes – Ian Ross and Stu Barker’s music, the motif of flying, acrobatics, the colour red, audience interaction, rewriting old tales, etc. – have become over-used for me. I think here is where I let my love and obsession with Kneehigh go.