An Interview with Emma Rice, Director of Tristan and Yseult

We are incredibly excited about the return of Tristan and Yseult to Bristol Old Vic this July. Seeing as even the most hardened theatregoer seems to gush when remembering the first time they saw it, we are preparing to be bowled over. A few weeks ago, in some wonderful turn of events, we found ourselves interviewing Emma Rice about the show…

Could you tell me a little about how it’s been coming back to directing Tristan & Yseult?
Returning to Tristan & Yseult is, in turn, a joy and an agony. I love this piece and marvel at the fusion of comedy, tragedy, chaos and sensuality. It is a pleasure and a delight to return to old friends and also to enjoy some new ones. However, this is a personal piece and it is laced with my own experience and my own heartbreak. Returning 10 years on, doesn’t numb the pain, no! Ten years only compounds it, with more experience, more love, more laughter and more understanding to weave throughout.

How have rehearsals been going?
Brilliantly, except for the weather. This has been a freakishly cold May and we struggled to stay warm in our beautiful, but draughty barns. Still, we know how to keep warm with lots of food, lots of games, lots of fighting and lots of messing around.

Are you discovering new things in the show? How has it changed from last time?
Certainly. We are all ten years older and that experience informs the piece. There is a freedom in returning and a freshness. We have also been working with some new actors who bring a new outlook and a new chemistry. But, is it still the Tristan & Yseult we know and love? Yes.
 
Could you tell me a little bit about the history of the show?
We first made Tristan & Yseult as a site specific piece. It was to perform in two outdoor venues only; Rufford in Nottinghamshire and Restormel Castle in Cornwall – a wonderful, circular, ruined castle, perched on a hilltop and open to the elements. It became immediately apparent that this show touched audiences in a very special way, that this ancient story resonated deeply and strongly in the modern phsyce. It was spotted by the National Theatre who invested in the production to take it indoors, to make it more physical and more musical. This artistic investment really took the show, and the company, on to a new level, enabling us to develop the musicality of our work and create and tour on a larger scale. It went on to tour nationally and internationally and wherever in the world we go, this story touches the hearts of all.

How has your relationship with the piece changed, 6 years since its last tour?
No. It is simply one of the most beloved shows ever.

What do you think/hope people will feel on seeing the show?
People will laugh and cry. They will recognise themselves and those they love. It will take them on a journey that will remind them they are part of a community and are living, loving, flawed and fantastic human beings.

What made you decide that Brangian should be played by a male actor? Was it a conscious decision, even?
Oh yes, it was very conscious. I have long been angered by the obsession with beauty and 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 virginal maid, nothing is challenged, nothing is opened, nothing is revealed. When I give this part to a large middle aged man, the opposite happens. We laugh and him/her, and then we imagine, and then we feel. This brute becomes so frail 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.

What’s next for Kneehigh?
Tristan & Yseult tours to the US and Brief Encounter to Australia and the US. We are working on a new version of The Beggar’s Opera written by Carl Grose and developing a project with Michael Morpurgo. Exciting times.

What’s next for the arts?!
We will all have to get creative in order to survive. These are tough times and nothing is certain any more. We will have to work hard, be bold and brave and try to surprise ourselves and our audiences. We mustn’t retreat to a comfort zone, but fight for our place in society. At Kneehigh, we believe in the three ‘R’s ; reinvention, regeneration and revolution.

Tristan and Yseult is on at Bristol Old Vic 3-20 Jul. Find out more here.

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