'Lovespotters' bring pathos to Arts Festival play

By Ruth Hill

The ancient Cornish legend of Tristan and Yseult was the inspiration behind Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and thousands of other love stories still being churned out by the Hollywood machine today.

It's the original love triangle tragedy, involving King Mark, his Irish bride Yseult (who also happens to be his enemy's sister) and his trusted aide and nephew, Tristan.

The tale has all the ingredients of an epic yarn: battles, love potions, voyages and intrigue -- but Kneehigh Theatre director Emma Rice did not want to do "a classic love story".

"I didn't want a show about beautiful people falling in love in some epic way that no one can relate to."

And so the group dreamed up the idea of mediating the story through a comic Greek chorus of Cornish "lovespotters", balaclava-clad voyeurs who track the romantic shenanigans through binoculars and add their own commentary tinged with envy and sadness.

Rice says using "the unloved" to tell a love story gives it an extra dimension of pathos.

"When you fall in love, you're invincible, you're a god.

"I always like to put the epic next to the domestic, and that's what the lovespotters are really: they're just us looking in from the sidelines."

Oh, and it's also laugh-out-loud funny, absurdist, eccentric... and doesn't moralise.

While most stories come to us filtered through the Victorians, who pasted "a moral" onto everything, Tristan and Yseult is unique in that it makes no moral judgements, Rice says.

"The characters get into trouble, as we all do, and they do their best to extricate themselves from these painful human situations."

There are good reasons why so many plays, popular songs, films, books and television shows are about romantic love, Rice says.

It's the enduring human obsession.

"Most of us have the privilege of being in love at least once in our lives (and some of us more than once) and it really is the most fantastic gift that human beings have.

"That's why we crave it, we miss it if we don't have it...

"But also it's a terribly destructive state to be in: we're out of control, we're not thinking.

"It's like a drug, a trap as well as a liberator, terrible and wonderful at the same time."

Rice's own love is theatre: "it's my life as well as my job".

Like all Kneehigh productions, Tristan and Yseult was created in a collection of old barns on an isolated stretch of Cornish coastline.

A large multi-fuel burner needs to be stoked and fed for rehearsals, there's no mobile phone reception and nowhere to pop in for a cappuccino.

Is this a case of great art can only be born out of great suffering?

Certainly not, insists Rice.

"The only 'hardship' -- our isolation -- is also a bonus.

"In this day and age, we're in communication all the time, we've all got mobiles, internet access....

"You realise that we spend all our lives multi-tasking, and it's very good just to stop and say 'We're just going to do one thing for a while'.

"I think it's radical in its simplicity."

Kneehigh Theatre, founded 25 years ago by Mike Shepherd (who plays King Mark), has kept its essential ethos, which is to make accessible art and have fun.

They are pretty much unafraid to give anything a go.

"We're quite a multi-skilled group of people but we're not highly skilled at anything, so don't come expecting fantastic gymnasts or tightrope walkers!

"We'll try our hands at anything whether it's playing a musical instrument or swinging off ropes, there's a great sense of freedom and abandon in that space."

Rice says the group has devoted their lives "to irreverence, naughtiness and joy".

"I don't want any barrier of cleverness and intellect coming between the performance and the audience.

"I want there to be vulnerability and foolishness."

The recipe has resonated with audiences and critics alike.

Tristan & Yseult had a sell-out, five-star season at London's National Theatre.

Rice says she has never worried about the "bums on seats" bottom-line that governs most theatre companies.

"I'm not a great worrier by instinct; it seems to me that if you set out to make a commercial success, you'll probably fail.

"So you might as well make something on its own terms on the gamble that it will be something special.

"I didn't for a minute think 'This is a banker, or a commercial idea', yet it's a great piece of work that has travelled the world."

* Performance dates: March 3, 7pm; March 4, 2 & 8pm; Mar 5, 6 and 7, 7pm, Opera House, Wellington


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