Passion, ache and lots of great music in splendid Tristan

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Andrew Durand (Tristan) and Patrycja Kujawska (Yseult) star as ill-fated lovers in the West Coast premiere of Tristan & Yseult, the show that put British company Kneehigh on the theatrical map. Below: Durand as Tristan bleeds for his love. Photos by Steve Tanner

The thing about a love story is this: you want to feel it. You need to feel it. When Juliet wakes just after Romeo bites it, if you’re not feeling that dagger in your own chest, what’s the point?

There are only so many love stories – love gained, love lost, love unrequited – and so many variations. How, then, do you make the story fresh? How do you reignite the passions and make your audience feel it all anew?

The shortest answer to that query is: let Kneehigh tell the story. The invigorating British theater company first dazzled us with Brief Encounter at American Conservatory Theater. Then they returned (twice) with the dazzling (and still my favorite) The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

What we learned from those two outings is that Kneehigh and director Emma Rice does not do theater in a conventional way. They deconstruct and reconstruct theatrical storytelling to find a through line to the comedy, the clarity and, most importantly, the passion. They utilize music the way a Beninhana chef utilizes knives, and they shake up an audience in the best possible way.

Kneehigh is back at Berkeley Rep with a show that’s new to us but is actually a landmark show in the company’s history. Tristan & Yseult is the show that, in 2003, made the British theater world finally stop seeing Kneehigh as a promising company and start seeing it as an exciting and important group of artists.

On these shores, we may not have the familiarity with the classic Cornish tale of Tristan and Yseult, but we can recognize a good love triangle when we see one.

Rice adapted the story from dozens of versions passed down through the centuries with writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy and gives it a wonderful contemporary spin. The dynamics of this love triangle – king, imported queen, valiant knight – feel an awful lot like that gang down in Camelot, but rather than giving us castles and dragons, Rice and team put us smack in “The Club of the Unloved,” a nightspot with a glorious band (music direction by Ian Ross) and a lot of sad inhabitants. These lovelorn souls look like birdwatchers with their warm knit head coverings, their nerdy glasses and binoculars around their necks. But they aren’t looking for gray-crowned rosy-finches or blue-footed boobies. They’re looking for love…or at least watching it from a safe distance.

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They hover around the action on designer Bill Mitchell’s multi-level scaffolding set, commenting and occasionally participating. The lovers at center stage give them plenty to watch, and the band, with singer Carly Bawden is often there with some gorgeous music to remind us we’re in a club overflowing with loneliness.

King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd, who founded Kneehigh in 1980) defeats Irish king Morholt (Craig Johnson) and sends his associate (possibly his son?), Tristan (Andrew Durand) to fetch Morholt’s sister, Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska) as a prize.

Given the title of the show, it’s a forgone conclusion that something will transpire between Tristan and Yseult before she can be claimed as King Mark’s queen.

Illicit love is exciting love, and Kneehigh’s method for expressing the soul-deep passion between these crazy kids involves swinging from ropes in ways that are as thrilling as they are sexy. But that’s not to say the title characters are the most interesting. That designation goes to Yseult’s handmaiden, Brangian (also played by Johnson). She is called upon to do quite a lot to cover her mistress’s indiscretions, and she does so in a way that is heartbreaking.

In fact, this sad love affair is bad for a number of people, including a character called Whitehands (Bawden), our story’s narrator and one more of its victims.

In addition to the acrobatics and some fun dancing, Kneehigh’s bag of tricks includes some spectacular music, most of it live (including a version of “No Woman, No Cry” that defies description) but some of it recorded (Nick Cave makes an indelible impression and Wagner adds some powerful themes). There’s even music during intermission, so think twice about running to the bathroom.

There’s much to love in Tristan & Yseult, and the performances (especially the fiery Kujawska, who also plays a mean violin) are full of surprises and depth. But I didn’t get the emotional wallop I got from The Wild Bride, and I think the difference is the script. There’s some clever rhyming here, but I got much less from the script than I did from the performances and the production itself. With such visceral theater, it’s really not that surprising that the words take a backseat to everything else.

[bonus interview]
I spoke with Kneehigh’s Emma Rice, adaptor and director of Tristan & Yseult for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult continues through Jan. 6 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addiston St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$99 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

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