Tristan & Yseult, Spoleto Festival USA
May 26-June 11, 2006, Dock Street Theatre
In their first appearance at Spoleto — and, for many of the members, their first time in the States — Cornish company Kneehigh Theatre presented an extraordinary adaptation of the centuries-old Tristan & Yseult tale, one which made the audience as much a part of the play as the actors themselves. With the entire cast doubling as ultra-geeky, romance-impaired “lovespotters” (a la the U.K.’s dweebish trainspotters), the company presented a hugely entertaining deconstructivist take on the ancient story of a love triangle among a king, his son, and a beautiful foreign maiden. They also laid bare the normally hidden mechanics of theatre, which included a large black safety cushion that actors on the raised platform in the center of the stage variously fell onto and tripped over as part of the show. “Mind that big black mattress there,” Frocin (Giles King) warned an actor after one such instance. “Don’t worry,” he then said, gesturing to the audience, “I don’t think they’ve seen it.”
Kneehigh had its start doing performances for children, and their first production of Tristan & Yseult actually took place in the open air, on top of a castle ruin in Cornwall that sits at the top of a sheer cliff. The round platform upon which much of the action in the Spoleto producton took place was a remnant of that original open-air setup, adapted for the group’s run at the Royal National Theatre two years ago. The play was as entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving a piece of theatre as Spoleto’s presented in many years. And all without the use of a single midget.