Conversating with King Mark and Brangien

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At the second of Spoleto’s woefully underappreciated Conversations With series, host Martha Teichner conversated with Tristan & Yseult cast members Mike Shepherd, the founder of Kneehigh

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Theatre who plays King Mark, and Craig Johnson, who plays both Morholt and Brangian, handmaid to Yseult. Johnson got whistles and hearty cheers when he stepped onto the small stage at Recital Hall; his character Brangian is easily an audience favorite at T&Y, what with him playing that part in understated drag (often just a slipover one-piece dress or a nightie) and bouncing onto the set via a trampoline throughout the show. (You have to see it to appreciate it.)

It was fascinating to learn that Kneehigh Theatre had its start doing performances for children, and their first production of Tristan & Yseult actually took place in the open air, on top of a castle ruin in Cornwall that sits at the top of a sheer cliff. In fact, Shepherd explained, Kneehigh is about the only thing going, theatre-wise, in Cornwall, and doesn’t have a permanent performance space it calls home (they rehearse in a leaky barn). The round platform upon which much of the action in the play takes place is a remnant of that original open-air setup, adapted for the group’s run at the Royal National Theatre a year ago. Actors now scurry across the scaffold-like walkways behind and beside the set, where they originally scampered across the castle’s crumbling battlements.

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Several observers have also noted that, after the sometimes farcical hijinks of the play’s beginning, its emotional level deepens considerably in the second act. Shepherd said that was a deliberate effect: he noted that the outdoor performances began at dusk, and as night deepened across the castle “and the moon and the bats came out,” the pitch of of the play became more intense. Bats, one assumes, will make almost anything more intense.

Of the Lovespotters, they are in fact modeled on Britain’s infamous geekish trainspotters, as City Paper reviewer (and Cornwall native) Nick Smith has noted. Asked about how the notion developed of having each character eventually don the anorak and balaclava of the Lovespotters in the Club of the Unloved, Shepherd replied that they act as a Greek chorus focusing attention (sometime literally, with binoculars) on the action. “And,” he observed, “I think there’s a Lovespotter in all of us, isn’t there?” Were truer words ever spoken?

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