Just me talking about costume-y kind of stuff
My first Houston production was supposed to be at The Alley. However, The Alley is being renovated this season and it's not finished yet, much like the way all major construction projects go over deadline and over budget. If you are wondering how The Alley will look when the dust settles, this was hanging in the lobby.
So the entire 2014-15 season of The Alley's shows are being held on the University of Houston campus. My sister graduated from U of H so I've seen several shows there. They had a very nice facility when my sister was there with three different spaces, The Wortham Theatre, their proscenium stage, The Quintero Theatre, their black box space, and Studio 208, a combination rehearsal and performance space. Since my sister's time, they've had three major renovations: new seating in the Wortham theatre in 2001, a $4 million expansion to the School of Theatre and Dance which got the entire complex a new lobby and new rehearsal spaces, and new rigging with digital and LED installation in the Wortham and Quintero in 2013. Tristan and Yseult was staged in the Wortham theatre, a 565 seat proscenium theatre with a fly rail system.
Tristan and Yseult is not an original Alley production. Rather, it's a touring production from the United Kingdom's Kneehigh Theatre Company, based in Cornwall. This is their original work: conceived, written, created, composed, and executed by the members of Kneehigh.
This is the preview video that The Alley had up on their website, which is what made me originally decide that I needed to see this production.
This was the lobby display which gave information about the cast, the co-creators, and the director, Emma Rice.
Emma Rice was just named the new director of The Globe theatre in England. She'll take over in April, 2016. Here's the link to the BBC news site if you'd like to read the article for yourself: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-32547966
The program notes informed me that Tristan and Yseult was created 10 years ago as a site-specific piece. It was to be performed in two outdoor venues only, one of them being at Restormel Castle in Cornwall. Because of the popularity of the show skyrocketing, the National Theatre invested in the production to adapt it for an indoor presentation. This is a re-mounted version that had been touring the US. Houston was its last city and we saw the production on its closing night. We were so very lucky we got to see it.
If you are not familiar with the story of Tristan and Isolde (as her name is usually spelled) it is the source of Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur as well as a one of the sources for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Here is the link to the Wikipedia article detailing all the medieval sources and variations of the story as well as its many adaptations into literature, music and film. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tristan_and_Iseult
Wagner wrote an entire opera about the two lovers.
The tale of the doomed lovers is simple enough. King Mark of Cornwall is invaded by King Moreholt of Ireland. Tristan, a French knight and possibly Mark's bastard child, saves Mark and the Cornish people from the Irish attack by killing Moreholt. Mark declares that he will further humiliate Moreholt's corpse by marrying his sister, the Irish princess, Yseult. He sends his faithful knight Tristan to sail to Ireland and collect her. Yseult, awaiting her brother's return, boards Tristan's ship and heals him from his battle wounds. They fall in love. She then discovers that her beautiful foreign knight is responsible for the death of her brother and of course, she now hates him for it. Tristan tells her that he must bring her back to Cornwall where she will marry Mark. She decides that she should drink a love potion to make her fall in love with Mark since she wants to be a dutiful wife. Accidentally or on purpose, both Yseult and Tristan drink the love potion and begin an affair aboard ship. Once she meets Mark they fall instantly in love with one another, regardless of the presence or lack thereof of the love potion. Once the wedding takes place, both Tristan and Yseult are plagued by guilt for they both love Mark and want to do what's right by him, however they cannot banish their love for one another and continue the affair. Mark finds out, of course, and instead of executing them, he banishes them. He loves them both too much to kill them. Tristan and Yseult go live in the forest for three years until Mark, on a hunt, comes across them asleep in one anther's arms. He drives his sword between their two bodies and rides off. When the lovers awaken, they realize that they cannot continue to hurt Mark and that maybe the passion that they once felt has worn off. Yseult goes back to Mark and they reconcile. Tristan sails off and finds another woman named Yseult who he marries even though he doesn't love her. At the end of Tristan's life and still suffering from his battle wounds, he sends for Yseult to come heal him. If the ship's sails are white she is aboard, if black, she refused to come. Tristan's wife, Yseult, lies to him and tells him that the sails are black. Tristan dies of a broken heart as well as his wounds. When Yseult arrives at the castle and sees that she is too late to save him, she dies as well. It's a sad, sad tale.
what kneehigh did with the legend
In the Kneehigh production, the story is set in the Club of the Unloved. Whitehands is the owner of the club and acts as the unofficial narrator of the story. The club is designated by a neon sign and positioned on the upper platform stage left where the musicians are set up. I should mention now that everyone in Kneehigh is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, actor, and dancer. They are an amazingly talented group of performers. The "Unloved" are the backbone of the show. They act as a chorus, telling the story, moving the scenery, bringing props on and off stage, dressing the actors, and operating all the wire work that goes on. Everyone in the cast, except for Whitehands, is one of the Unloved until it's time to take off the hat, nerd glasses, and rain coat and become a leading character. There is a running gag with the Unloved. They often don bizarre headbands with things attached that relate to the scene. At night they wore headbands with stars on, at the wedding they wore white balloons, in the forest they wore foliage. This is a photo of the Unloved and their fearless leader, Whitehands, played by Kirsty Woodward.
Here's a closer view of the musicians in the club. The show was scored so that there was music underneath the dialogue most of the time and there were many songs. They've released two of them on a compilation CD that we bought after the show. You can find the link at the end. The music alternated between hauntingly beautiful, hilarious, and tragically, heart-breakingly sad. The musicians in the club were playing songs of unrequited love from the 1950's as the audience was being seated. The house lights were on and as we were enjoying the music, the Unloved got out their binoculars and notepads and began mingling with the audience trying to spot love.
The central platform has a giant pole that serves as a ship's mast toward the back. This holds the wires which suspend the sails of Tristan's ship, his hammock, stage curtains, a hanged Irish soldier, both Tristan and Yseult after they've drunk the love potion, Frocin in his attempt to catch the lovers in their tryst Mission Impossible style, and a crow's nest that Whitehands watches the last third of the show from. The next photo shows the dancing that celebrates Mark and Yseult's wedding. You can see the metal runway in the background that serves as the gangplank to the ship.
Here's the scene where Yseult and Tristan "accidentally on purpose" both drink the love potion and get ridiculously drunk doing it. Yseult's handmaiden, Brangian, brings two identical bottles out for them explaining that "this one is the sweet wine for you, Tristan, and this one is the love potion for you, Yseult. Now, whatever you do, don't get them mixed up" As she exits, she says, "But in my experience, a love potion is just an excuse for wild abandonment with one you already love". As you can see from the photo, being in this show requires an amazing amount of physical dexterity and possibly circus training.
The production breaks the fourth wall with abandon. From the very beginning, the Unloved are out in the audience using binoculars to look for love. When King Morholt invades, his army drops propoganda onto our heads: small, white, quarter sheets of paper that "Proclaim to the People of Cornwall that following the occupation, this land is henceforth a member of the Irish territories and will be governed under Irish law". Right before the wedding, the audience is told to get out the balloons we hid in your programs and blow them up but do not tie them. When Mark and Yseult are pronounced man and wife we are told to let them go. All the balloons were white; It was beautiful. We are made to shout Long Live King Mark and Queen Yseult!
There are two more characters I haven't told you about yet, Frocin and Brangian. Frocin is Mark's lap dog, a loyal soldier who excels in doing Mark's dirty work. He hangs the Irish soldiers and burns Morholt's corpse but it was Tristan who successfully defended Cornwall from the invasion and saved Mark's life. For this feat, Tristan becomes Mark's cherished soldier thus making Frocin's heart burn with jealousy. Naturally, Frocin plots to expose the affair that he is sure Yseult and Tristan are having, in order to win favor with Mark and regain the love he feels he has lost to Tristan. When he presents unrefutable proof to Mark, in the form of an ill-gotten sex tape, Mark is enraged and banishes Frocin from Cornwall saying that Frocin stole from him the only good thing in his life, his love for Tristan and Yseult. Frocin is heart-broken and joins the ranks of the Unloved with a welcoming kiss on the forehead from Whitehands.
Brangian is Yseult's faithful handmaiden. She desperately tried to prevent Yseult's affair with Tristan, but failing that, she protects Yseult's secret by taking her place in the marriage bed so that Mark will not realize that Yseult is no longer a virgin. When Mark makes love to Brangian, she falls in love with him, and despite the humilation of being forced to leave her lover's bed and take the stained sheets with her, she still loves the man who deflowered her, despite knowing that her love must remain secret and unrequited. Brangian is played not by an ingenue, but by a middle-aged man. At first her part is comedic. A man wearing a dress is always funny especially when he's/she's running after a real woman, doling out advice much like the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, yet failing to get his/her mistress to listen. Later on, during the wedding night scene, we forget all about his maleness and just see a frightened, vulnerable victim of love's cruelty. The director, Emma Rice, had this to say about her casting decision, "I have long been angered by the obsession with beauty and I feel, not only that this is not true to life, but also stops the collective imagination. When we see a pretty , thin, young girl play a virginial maid, nothing is challenged, nothing is opened, nothing is revealed. When I give this part to a middle-aged man, the opposite happens. We laugh at him/her, and then we imagine, and then we feel. This brute becomes so frail and and so vulnerable that it breaks our hearts. This is something you can only do on stage. On film, it would be weird; but here, in the world of the imagination, the audience can be transported, surprised, and deeply moved."
From this point on the show just gets more and more heartbreaking. It is finally revealed that Whitehands is Tristan's wife, coincidentally also named Yseult. Tristan is now dying, awaiting the ship he sent to bring Yseult back to him to heal him again. He has ordered that if Yseult is aboard the sail will be white, if not, the sail will be black. Tristan begs Whitehands to tell him if the sails are Black or White. At this point, Whitehands addresses the audience to reveal that she has loved Tristan with all her heart but that he only married her because her name reminded him of his lost love and has never loved her. She says, "Me? I have loved him wholly since the first moment I set eyes on him. but he can't look at me. It's always been this way with him. He walked on air, his eyes distant, and no matter how I bathe his wounds or what feasts I prepare, I cannot make him see me. I am half a wife. I warm his bed, but not his body. I serve his wine, but he is not mine." She asks Tristan if he loves her but he only answers her question with the same one of his own, Black or White? Whitehand says, "When we are born we are baptised in white, we are married in white, and when we die, we are buried in a white shroud. It's hard to keep things white. Dirt loves it, blood loves it, sin loves it. If one were baptised in black, it would not show the dirt picked up along the way." As she gives this speech she removes her pristine white gloves and replaces them with black ones. Tristan again demands to know, "Black or White?" Whitehands says, "The loved attract love, if you are already loved, more love just seems to come your way. Whereas us--the Unloved--must take Fate in our hands. So don't judge me. Those of you with pits in your stomachs, with rents in your hearts, will know. Bugger goodness! And damn the boats that do not carry love my way!" Kirsty Woodward gives the performance of her life as she answers with all the unrequited love, jealousy, and anger in her heart, screaming, "You want to know? You really want to know if your precious Yseult is coming? Black! The sail is black!"
As soon as she tells the lie, Wagner's "Liebestod" wails out of the darkness as one of the Unloved runs in with a model ship with a white sail and runs a full circle around Tristan. Then another Unloved with a huge white flag runs in and does the same, then the curtain used as Tristan's sail at the beginning is flown in covering the entire back of the stage with yards and yards of white fabric. As the music swells, Tristan, believing Yseult has not come and too ill to see the White Sail, dies as Yseult makes her desperate entrance, dressed all in white and running as fast as she can down the gangplank to her dead lover. She embraces him, sobbing, and dies herself. To put an even finer point on the whole theme of unrequited love, we are reminded of the other broken hearts in the show as King Mark comes down the gangplank only to see Yseult dead over Tristan's body. Brangian follows Mark down, longing for the man who unknowingly bedded her. There was not a dry eye in the house.
Here is the link to their website, where you can get most of the information that was in the program, as well as information about the other shows that they've done and their upcoming productions. Below is the downloadable study guide for students. It's a 49 page booklet with all kinds of interviews with the cast and crew, designers, directors, and creators of both the company and this production. There are lots of production photos as well.
study guide for students
original music from the show
This is the CD we bought after the show. It's available on their website. Unfortunately it only has two songs from Tristan and Yseult on it. But the plus side is that it has 10 more songs from their other shows and all of them are beautiful. You can get your very own copy by clicking on the merchandise button on their website. Their website also has audio files of the songs from the show. I'd add them here but I can't since I don't pay for that extra feature.
Total cost of the event: 3 tickets $78, CD $10.