Why Tristan & Yseult is the Guthrie's Must-See Show of 2014

Kneehigh Theatre, of Brief Encounter fame, returns to break our hearts yet again

There’s the apocryphal joke: Did you hear about the Minnesotan who loved his wife so much he almost told her?

People up here in the north might not be quite as emotionally constricted as all that, but there’s a grain of truth to the notion that we tend to play things close to the vest. Our taste for things onstage, though, often speaks otherwise: Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre’s achingly beautiful Brief Encounter was a runaway hit in 2010 when it came to the Guthrie, and now the same company returns with another story of star-crossed love, Tristan & Yseult.

The story has been told countless ways over the past millennium: A beautiful princess marries an older king but falls catastrophically in love with a dashing young knight. It’s narrative nitroglycerine, sufficiently archetypal to inspire material ranging from the tales of King Arthur (and Guinevere and Lancelot) to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

“It’s about what it is to get in trouble for being in love,” says Emma Rice, who adapted the piece from Celtic legend. “This is the story of the oldest love triangle.”

“Like a modern soap opera, it’s almost curiously non-judgmental,” says Mike Shepherd, co-artistic director of Kneehigh along with Rice. “It’s also the product of Emma’s and my paranoia about performing some ancient myth with doublet, hose, and dragons—our intense desire not to be in any way boring.”

With a mix of music, dance, comedy, and acrobatics, Tristan is rendered self-consciously anti-highfalutin, chock full of what Rice calls the “passionate and ridiculous bits.” It’s an evening that combines tunes including pre-show takes on Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” and Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” with later fleeting strains of Wagner; in scenes of King Mark seeking evidence of his wife’s unfaithfulness, the action is bawdily funny and frenetic.

Kneehigh’s ethic is to envelop and embrace its audiences in immersive worlds of music, sumptuous visuals, and emotions. While Brief Encounter was a study in aching and longing set to visual conventions of film, Tristan draws on the tones of desire, abandon, and the intoxication of love.

And while our romantic twosome exude youthful glamour, they are observed onstage by an ensemble of blandly dressed voyeurs (binocular-toting birdwatchers, or “love spotters”) called “The Unloved.” They’re basically the rest of us, with our romances and adventures taking place on a decidedly less mythic scale.

“I felt uncomfortable with the idea of this beautiful couple, like what Hollywood teaches us,” Rice says. “This isn’t my experience at all—we’ve known passionate love, but we’ve also known what it’s like not to be loved.”

“There must be something going on in my psyche,” Rice laughs when it’s pointed out that Minnesotans will know her for two works covering the ground of ill-fated love. But of course she isn’t alone—the tempest of the heart beats beneath the most placid of surfaces, like strong currents beneath the Minnesota ice.

Tristan & Yseult plays at the Guthrie Theater February 13-March 23.