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Kneehigh's

Tristan
& Yseult

March 30

April 13, 2014

in CST's Courtyard Theater

A World's Stage Production
from Cornwall, England
adapted and directed by Emma Rice
writers: Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy

A Conversation with Some of Tristan & Yseult’s creators and artists

Adapter and Director Emma Rice, Co-Artistic Director of Kneehigh Mike Shepherd, Musician Ian Ross, and Writer Carl Grose discuss the making of Tristan & Yseult.

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

Emma Rice: We first made Tristan & Yseult as a site specific piece. It was to perform in tow 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.

What made you decide that Branigan should be played by a male actor?

Emma:  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 and [sic] 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 don 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 should we know about Cornwall in Tristan & Yseult?

Mike Shepherd: 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 centre of the world trade route. Like the tin from Cornwall, the story of Tristan & Yseult spread all over the world to many different cultures and gave rise to many different versions – there are rumours that Shakespeare was influenced by the story when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, and you can see why.

Tell us a little about the theme of love in Tristan & Yseult.

Mike: 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 and 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?

How would you describe the music of Tristan & Yseult?

Ian Ross: The music in Tristan & Yseult is an operatic collage of mambo and circus, ballad and punk, an underpinning of Eastern Europe with a recurring underscore of minimalist and Avant Garde improvisations and grooves. It serves to juxtapose the action, to surprise and to drive home the tragedy.             

A lot of the piece is poetry rather than prose – what do you think this adds? What was the reason for writing this way?

Carl Grose: Yes, there is a lot of poetry in this. And lots of different styles. I think what it adds is a classical feel, a musicality of text, but it also, most importantly, elevates the language out of the domestic. I also tried to let the style of the poetry tell story, too. Emma suggested that King Mark speak in iambic pentameter, which helped enormously. This separates King Mark, makes him grander and more aloof from the other characters, which I like – because he’s King of Cornwall. Other characters speak in a rough poetry, like Frocin for example. His is more in the rhythm of nursery rhymes or limericks. Stunted. Nasty. Childish. So the poetry is “in character” too. 

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