In the balcony of the neon-lit The Club of the Unloved, a four-piece band by the name of Martin and the Misfits play a conveyor belt of wrist-slashers from Patsy Cline’s Crazy to Roy Orbison’s Only The Lonely. Downstairs, a collection of oddballs and loners who describe themselves as “love spotters”, “passion watchers” and “kiss clockers” emerge from the shadows of the dancefloor in search of love. But in their crumpled blue raincoats, dark woollen snoods and thick black specs, they are more moulding than smouldering.
But even outcasts have a leader. Step forward the Ronseal-named Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), a cross between Jackie Kennedy and Paula Yates, who informs the sun-scorched groundlings and seated patrons of Shakespeare’s Globe that the love affair between the French knight “born of sorrow” Tristan (Dominic Marsh) and the Irish princess with “red, gold hair” Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) is as Private Frazer would say doomed. To understand why, back in time we must go.
The Celtic myth upon which the Cornwall-based Kneehigh theatre company’s exhilarating production is based is not so much a love triangle, more a love tetrahedron. The gist of which is that King Mark (Mike Shepherd) seeks revenge on an army of Irish invaders by capturing and marrying their leader’s sister Yseult. Unfortunately, his messenger-at-arms Tristan falls head-over-heels in love with her at first sight. As does she with him. The result of which is that swords are drawn, flesh is pierced and hearts are broken.
But as Tennyson observed: “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” For Tristan and Yseult, love was a two-way street. For Cornish King and the Unloved trio of Whitehands, the King’s right-hand man Frocin (Kyle Lima, a smooth operator with a velvet voice) and Yseult’s virginal maid Brangian (a hilarious and at times show-stopping Niall Ashdown), love was a dead end. A term which cannot be applied to the show which is nothing short of a riot of colour and noise, song and dance, comedy and pathos. Not to mention aerial acrobatics!
Former Kneehigh and current (albeit controversially soon-to-be ousted) Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director Emma Rice has along with writers Anna Maria Murphy and Carl Grose created a monster of a show, nay spectacle, which swishes its tail and breathes fire with a boldness and inventiveness I have not seen since the National Theatre’s production of Peter Pan.
The seven-strong cast which includes the Cheshire Cat-grinning and leg-splitting Tom Jackson Greaves and the soulful-singing Omari Douglas are to a man, woman and pigeon perfectly cast. And the four-piece band led by jazz musician Stu Barker who play everything from Wagner and Cilla to samba and rock are as tight as Amber Rudd’s sphincter on election night!
“Where does all the wasted love go?” bemoans Whitehands towards the end of the play. The answer to which is: wherever Tristan & Yseult is not! So, if you can, get yourself down to The Club of the Unloved at Shakespeare’s Globe where the show runs until 24 June or Theatr Clywd, Bristol Old Vic or Galway International Arts Festival where it tours until 22 July!