Ah, the club of the unloved. It’s a club we’ve all belonged to at one time or another; and its name is up there in neon, above the stage on which Kneehigh Theatre from Cornwall play out their extraordinary 21st century version of the story of Tristan and Yseult, first commissioned in 2003 for outdoor performance, but now a fabulous theatre show, acclaimed from Penzance to Sydney and New York.
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow ****
To say that Emma Rice’s adaptation and production is a bold one is to understate the case by several orders of magnitude; everything about it is strange, unexpected and witty, as an onstage band of romantic losers in balaclavas and grubby anoraks play their way through the Buddy Holly songbook, along with other anthems of lost love.
There’s also a narrator, a gorgeous 1950s-chic character called Whitehands, brilliantly played by Kirsty Woodward; she too is a member of the club. And into this landscape of wry, funny or bitter loss step two characters who are destined to love and be loved; Tristan, the long-lost French son of the Cornish king Mark, and Yseult, the Irish princess that Mark intends to marry, but who falls passionately in love with Tristan – and he with her – when he is sent to escort her back to Cornwall.
It doesn’t end well, of course. But on a stage swept with colour, sound and invention – and with the odd moment of Wagner playing from an old electric radiogram on stage – Rice’s cast of 12 succeed brilliantly in the fiercely difficult job of combining elements of modern reflection and send-up with a true respect for the romantic heart of the story.
This perfect balance of tragedy and comedy is perhaps best reflected in Niall Ashdown’s funny and heartbreaking performance as Yseult’s middle-aged serving-woman Brangian, constantly rushing to get back into character after a tour of duty in the band, or as a rope-worker on one of the show’s many moments of flight.
Yet if, elsewhere, the comedy is sometimes a shade self-conscious and long-drawn out, these are only momentary missteps in a fantastic and beautifully-judged spectacle, which features three fine central performances from Dominic Marsh, Hannah Vassallo and Mike Shepherd, an outrageously heartbreaking and beautiful final scene, and a sense of theatre so passionate that it has the audience at the Citizens’ cheering the Kneehigh company to the echo, like Cornish cousins finally come home.
Final performances today