Old­est love story still touch­ing our hearts

Ten years on, Knee­high are bring­ing Tris­tan & Yseult back to Leeds. Yvette Hud­dle­ston spoke to com­pany founder Mike Shep­herd. Se­ri­ously funny line-up for fes­ti­val Dark com­edy of grand ges­tures

Yorkshire Post - Culture & The Guide - - STAGE -

“THE dan­ger when you re­visit work is that you com­pletely rein­vent it, but we al­ways have a de­sire to move things on to the next stage,” says Mike Shep­herd, founder and joint artis­tic di­rec­tor of Knee­high. The Cor­nish theatre com­pany is bring­ing its sem­i­nal work Tris­tan & Yseult back to the West York­shire Play­house, a decade af­ter it first ap­peared there.

Launch­ing the 10th an­niver­sary tour in Leeds re­flects Knee­high’s spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the city. “Al­though we are a pop­u­lar com­pany through­out the coun­try, there are not many places where we have such a solid au­di­ence base,” says Shep­herd. “And we love the Quarry theatre.”

The pro­duc­tion com­bines com­edy, live mu­sic, grand pas­sion and poignant ob­ser­va­tion to tell the mov­ing tale of Cor­nish King Mark who un­ex­pect­edly falls head over heels for Yseult, his en­emy’s sis­ter, a sit­u­a­tion which is fur­ther com­pli­cated by the ar­rival of the enig­matic Tris­tan. “It’s the world’s old­est love story and the heart of it is this predica­ment with which ev­ery­one can iden­tify,” says Shep­herd. “There are three peo­ple who love each other and they don’t seem to be able to leave each other. It’s about the com­plex tor­ment of love – and it is to­tally non­judg­men­tal. It’s not say­ing ‘he’s weak’ or ‘she’s amoral’. I think it’s tragic, funny and enor­mously touch­ing.”

Al­though some may be fa­mil­iar with the story through Wag­ner’s opera, few may know that it orig­i­nated in Corn­wall. “We don’t get taught that Corn­wall was a rich king­dom for three hun­dred years and that it was an amaz­ingly im­por­tant place – the story trav­elled the world, you can trace it to four or five dif­fer­ent coun­tries,” says Shep­herd. “Ten years ago we were wor­ried that we were do­ing this an­cient Cor­nish le­gend and we had a duty to make theatre that was funky and con­tem­po­rary.”

They needn’t have wor­ried – the show be­came a huge hit and went on to tour in­ter­na­tion­ally in con­junc­tion with the National Theatre.

Many of the orig­i­nal cast mem­bers are re­turn­ing, in­clud­ing Shep­herd who will be repris­ing his role as King Mark and adapter-di­rec­tor Emma Rice, as well as some new faces. “It’s such a great love story,” he says. “And Emma’s take on it is bril­liant – telling it through the eyes of the ‘unloved’. They are the ones who are left be­hind. That touches us all.” When we speak, the com­pany have just ar­rived in Leeds hav­ing spent time re­hears­ing the show at their cliff-top premises, ‘the barns’, down in Corn­wall.

“Some of the stuff we did back then feels quite prim­i­tive and raw,” says Shep­herd. “I think the work has de­vel­oped cre­atively in terms of the chore­og­ra­phy and the way we use mu­sic.”

As well as re­viv­ing Tris­tan & Yseult, the com­pany are tour­ing Brief En­counter in Aus­tralia in the au­tumn and are cur­rently de­vel­op­ing a new piece. “It’s our ver­sion of The Beg­gar’s Opera,” says Shep­herd. “It has the work­ing ti­tle of Dead Dog in a Suit­case and Other Love Songs. We have never done any­thing like this be­fore. There is a real thrill – a wave of en­ergy.”

Knee­high dates back to 1980 and Shep­herd, who cel­e­brated his 60th birth­day ear­lier this year, is still very much at the heart of it all.

“As the per­son who started the com­pany, my para­noia is ‘am I just try­ing to keep some­thing go­ing?’ but it doesn’t feel like that at all,” he says. “There are more and more in­ter­na­tional per­form­ers join­ing the com­pany to work on var­i­ous projects and they are fill­ing it with a new en­ergy and de­sire. Oth­ers have been with us for years and through­out the com­pany there is an un­spo­ken lan­guage, a com­plic­ity, that is so valu­able. You have to keep rein­vent­ing your­self and each other.”

Tris­tan & Yseult, West York­shire Play­house, June 14-22. 0113 213 7700. www. wyp.org.uk ALEXEI Sayle, Josh Wid­de­combe (pic­tured) and Ste­wart Lee have all been con­firmed for this year’s Har­ro­gate Com­edy Fes­ti­val. The two-week event is now in its fifth year and tick­ets for the Oc­to­ber’s pro­gramme have just gone on sale.

A mix of vet­eran stand-ups and up­com­ing tal­ent, the fes­ti­val will also see gigs from the likes of Phill Jupi­tus, best known th­ese days as team cap­tain on Never Mind the Buz­zcocks and Mock the Week’s Andy Par­sons.

To book tick­ets call 01423 502116 and for a full pro­gramme of events go to www.har­ro­gateth­e­atre.co.uk. FOL­LOW­ING the suc­cess of last year’s A Govern­ment In­spec­tor, North­ern Broad­sides’ as­so­ciate di­rec­tor Con­rad Nel­son and play­wright Deb­o­rah McAn­drew are to team up again. The pair are work­ing on an adap­ta­tion of Niko­lai Erd­man’s dark comic clas­sic The Sui­cide. Re­named The Grand Ges­ture, the ac­tion will be moved from Rus­sia to North­ern Ire­land. The end re­sult will be seen when the play opens for a two-week run at Har­ro­gate Theatre in Septem­ber be­fore tour­ing theatres across the north. Con­tact: 01423 502116 and www.har­ro­gateth­e­atre.co.uk

FOR­BID­DEN PAS­SION: Knee­high’s Tris­tan&Yseult is back at the West York­shire Play­house.

LOVE TRI­AN­GLE: Mike Shep­herd as King Mark in Knee­high’s pro­duc­tion of Tris­tan&Yseult which opens in Leeds tonight.

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