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
“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.