The Guthrie Theater has awakened from its midwinter slumber. The big blue house on the river, dark since shortly after New Year’s, gets the gears in motion by hosting Kneehigh’s lively production of “Tristan & Yseult,” which opened Friday on the proscenium stage.
Kneehigh is the Cornwall-based troupe that re-imagined Nöel Coward’s “Brief Encounters” in 2010 on this same stage. “Tristan” has much the same spirit of invention — a fearless approach that summons all the craft of storytelling. Live and recorded music — sung and instrumental — dance, stentorian oration and clowning all jell in Kneehigh’s signature theatricality. Dramatic excerpts from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” shoulder up against traditional folk songs and a suave modern menace plays off an eagerness to provoke laughs. I find the words “a Monty Python jesting” written in my notes.
On occasion, the zest for humor steps on a moment of pathos in this tragic love story. I wonder whether Emma Rice — who adapted and directed the piece — is one of those people who would grumble, “Go on, get out of here,” if you tried to hug her during a teary farewell.
Be that as it may, Rice fully redeems our appetite for passion with a shattering conclusion. The pain feels real, the epic sweep is visually expressed in a way that obviously is manufactured and yet completely authentic. This, of course, is the very essence of theater but it is not easy and often flops in execution. Not here.
In “Tristan,” the hero wins a war and returns with a conquered princess (Yseult) for the Cornish king (Mark). It gets complicated when Tristan and Yseult drink love potion and fall for each other. Mark is fond of both and can’t bring himself to use his blade on them. Adding to the love triangle is Tristan’s wife, who has been waiting at home in Brittany. She is less charitable than Mark.
Using these bones, Kneehigh’s Andrew Durand becomes a Tristan who swaggers almost awkwardly with the exotic and punky style of French New Wave. He is at the heart a creature of instinct. Stuart Goodwin’s King Mark is dressed like a business shark, in a sleek dark suit, but reveals sympathetic eyes when he takes off the shades.
Etta Murfitt’s Yseult is a terribly charming girl-next-door type, never the petulant princess. She’s clearly a dancer with her fluid movement.
Carly Bawden, squarely in the 1950s with her pillbox hat and pale yellow skirt suit, is the mystery woman who narrates, sings and generally observes all that is going on.
The juicy and campy roles go to Giles King, as the king’s aide, and Craig Johnson as Yseult’s handmaiden. Johnson bounces on a trampoline each time he enters and leaps up on the central playing platform. It is a trick that never gets old. He also contributes a surprisingly poignant moment when the handmaiden gets tangled in wedding night shenanigans.
King (the actor, not the king) plays a trashy gossip and manipulator — goading the audience into playing along.
This air of animation and goofiness never feels cheap or phony. Oddly, in fact, it feels seriously committed to keep the storytelling buoyant — the spoonful of sugar, as it were.
Not that there is medicine to be choked down. Far from it. This ancient Cornish legend has never felt fresher. Kneehigh both honors a cultural touchstone and inflects it with charm and levity. It’s a great way to start the year.