In the neon-lit Club of the Unloved, the ‘Love-Spotters’ dream of their membership expiry, and of the day they’ll finally be allowed in the very select society of the Beloved. While taking turns to sing lovelorn ballads, they remember how they got there in the first place. Among them, Frocin (Kyle Lima) bitterly recalls the day Tristan (Dominic Marsh) robbed him of the attention of his dear King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd). This is the set-up for Kneehigh’s joyous and lyrical retelling of the Arthurian legend, a story Frocin and the other members of the club know all too well for having participated in it – only never quite in the starring roles.
The concert halts. Enter King Mark and Tristan, to the more traditional sound of Wagner. Tristan is promptly sent on his quest to find Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) for Mark. It only takes some wine and a magic potion for the pair to fall madly in love. The rest is history, with added choreographies, songs (including a brilliant Daft Punk cover) and aerial numbers.
This production, in which we take a step away from the traditional tale to look at its forgotten underdogs, has been on the road for over 10 years, but it still feels as new and, given the theme, surprisingly uplifting as it probably did on its first day. The late Bill Mitchell’s creative set design works wonders, as the narrative moves back and forth between the Club, Cornwall, Ireland, the sea, and the forest, and allows for acrobatic performances. Tristan and Yseult’s duo as they gulp down the fateful potion while jumping in the air, suspended to a mast, superbly enacts their drunken desire for each other.
The Unloved frequently interrupt the main story with live-songs and sarcastic one-liners, mostly delivered by deadpan Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward). The ‘Love-Spotters’ walk around the stage in fanciful costumes, their heads covered in ferns or antennae, spying on Tristan and Yseult’s passion from the margin of the legend. As Yseult’s maid Brangian, Niall Ashdown hilariously disrupts the lovers’ union. He provides a comical foil, but is also a moving victim of his/her mistress’s passion. Joyful and bittersweet, Emma Rice’s whimsical creation is a new story in its own right, and does credit to the company’s inventiveness and to its talented cast.