Thursday 21 March 2019

A theatrical grab bag of delight

Kneehigh Theatre's Tristan & Yseult playing as part of the 40th Galway International Arts Festival. Photo: Steve Tanner
Kneehigh Theatre's Tristan & Yseult playing as part of the 40th Galway International Arts Festival. Photo: Steve Tanner

Katy Hayes

As the last of the audience is being seated, a nightclub kicks into life with a house band doing covers of downbeat love songs. A bunch of socially awkward blokes wander out into the auditorium, in knitted helmet hats and anoraks, asking people how to be successful at dating. They are Love Spotters with binoculars; like train-spotters, only sadder. A neon light signals "The Club of the Unloved". They are led by a scorned woman called Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward). It's hilarious.

Cornwall's theatre company Kneehigh revives this 2003 show for a tour of the Celtic Nations, providing Galway International Arts Festival with a broadly appealing, popular, spectacle show. It is part musical, part circus, part mythological storytelling. Interactive, infectious, the audience is put to work blowing up balloons, whilst also getting blown away. The saddo nightclub on stage melts into myth.

Medieval Cornwall, Ireland and Brittany are the locations, and people get about by boat. King Mark of Cornwall is to be married to Irish Yseult. He sends the only man he trusts to collect his bride, his son Tristan. Yseult, fearing she will not love her new, older husband, asks her servant Brangian to make her a love potion to help the marriage along. Yseult shares the potion with Tristan instead, and the young pair simply cannot help themselves. This is all superbly dramatised with a terrific sequence between Tristan (Dominic Marsh) and Yseult (Hannah Vassallo), literally high on love. King Mark (a dignified Mike Shepherd), shown proof of his wife's infidelity, rages with a broken heart but ultimately shows mercy on the pair.

Musically eclectic, this is a magpie's grab bag of sounds: Nick Cave; Richard Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde; a variety of deadpan covers of lovesick classics including 'Love Hurts' and 'Only the Lonely'. Movement sequences include breakdancing and disco jives; there is a good deal of mime.

The design by the late Bill Mitchell is a series of platforms and walkways, with a round elevated playing area in the middle, and a vertical mast for some high wire action. A nautical theme mixes with a nightclub vibe. The design creates a dynamic playing space but also contains plenty of detail, including beer can zogabongs and ferny pastoral headpieces. This is the show that established Emma Rice as a star director and you can easily see why.

The audience is never allowed lose sight of the story's emotional core - the fear of being unloved. There is much larking about with funny dances and visual effects, but Rice also has the wisdom to go to Wagner to get a potent emotional kick at the end. High wire tricks and theatrical effects abound, but this show's biggest trick is to simultaneously laugh at itself and take itself utterly seriously.

THREE TO BOOK

1 Dublin By Lamplight

Town Hall Theatre, Galway

July 25—30

Corn Exchange bring this stylish commedia dell’arte show to the Galway festival. A hilarious, affectionate lampooning of the Abbey Theatre founders, directed by Annie Ryan.

2 The Confirmation Suit

New Theatre, Dublin

July 24—August 5

Brendan Behan’s famous story, brimming with Dublin humour, is adapted for the stage by Peter Sheridan and performed by the very funny Gary Cooke of Après Match fame.

3 Padraig Potts’ Guide to Walking

Viking Theatre, Dublin

 July 25—August 19

A one-man show by Seamus O’Rourke; a coming-of-age story set in the author’s home county, Leitrim, about love, lost chances and settling for the wrong girl.

A strong production of a chilly story

It's a beautiful sunny evening in Galway; inside the theatre a light shower of snow falls. A dazzling design by Jamie Vartan dominates this big show, with a massive installation of wrecked pianos creating a multi-tiered playing space, full of idiosyncratic possibility. There is one functioning piano, and musical director Conor Linehan plays it live throughout. 

Presented by Landmark Productions and the Galway International Arts Festival, Conall Morrison has adapted and directed this fusion of Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck and Franz Schubert's song cycle for piano Winterreise for the 40th anniversary of the Galway arts extravaganza.

The sources date from the 1820s and 1830s and Joan O'Clery's handsome costumes have the characters perfectly kitted out for a Dickensian winter.

Patrick O'Kane as Woyzeck combines vulnerability with strong presence and evokes much empathy as he is buffeted about by a quack doctor (Barry McGovern in top form and a top hat) who keeps diagnosing him with preposterous illnesses. He is goaded and teased by his military comrades about what the Drum Major (Peter Coonan, full of delightful, pompous bluff) is up to with his missus. His common-law wife Marie, is a sinuous, velvet-voiced Camille O'Sullivan.

So all is splendidly done: costumed, sung, performed, and there are pianos to the rafters. But what of the central narrative objective? Woyzeck is a man who kills his beautiful lover, the mother of his child, in a fit of jealousy because she has relations with another man. The two central characters set out to win the hearts of the audience and both O'Kane and O'Sullivan give turbo-charged performances. But the play, the music, are all working to excavate Woyzeck's suffering and sorrow and complications; the show is eerily reminiscent of soft newspaper articles seeking to understand why family men inexplicably kill their loved ones. The snow falls again at the end, spreading plenty of chill.

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