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Tristan & Yseult – Interview with Mike Shepherd

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Read more on Tristan & Yseult – Interview with Mike Shepherd from the Kneehigh Cookbook archive.

What attracted you to the story as a company?

Tristan & Yseult is an ancient story. The thing that fascinated us about it was how old it was but how un-judgemental it felt. It asked the question: can you love two people at once? And the love triangle seemed quite modern it felt like it could be an Eastenders plot.

Could you tell us about the portrayal of Cornwall in Tristan & Yseult?

Cornwall was a kingdom in itself, and it was the richest kingdom in the world for 300 years at the time this story was set. Tin was more valuable than gold, and Cornwall was at the centre of the world trade route. Like the Tin from Cornwall, the story of Tristan & Yseult spread all over the world to many different cultures and gave rise to many different versions there are rumours that Shakespeare was influenced by the story when he wrote Romeo & Juliet, and you can see why.

We wanted to show Cornwall’s side of history as it doesn’t get taught in schools, English history is taught in schools. Did you know, for instance, that the first university was in Cornwall, that The British Postal Service, the first of its kind in the world, was conceived by a man from St Blazey that the first gas-lit house was in Redruth that no record exists of any formal annexation of Cornwall to England?

“Now picture this country etched on a map. Then regard what you see as nothing but crap. Forget what you’ve been taught or think you know: the centre of everything’s here – Kernow.”
Carl Grose/Anna Maria Murphy

How has theatre in the UK changed in the past ten years?

When we began, Theatre was boring. We needed to make it immediate and funky.

Since we first toured Tristan & Yseult, theatre in the UK has moved on and there are more diverse types of theatre moving into the mainstream. Companies such as Complicitie, Shunt, De la Guarda, Punchdrunk, Le Page, Clod Ensemble and Frantic Assembly work boldly with technology, event, site, choreography, action, image and music which Kneehigh have always striven to do.

What were your inspirations?

At the time of making the show in the early 2000s, Emma and I were really into Tarantino and films like Pulp Fiction: bloody good storytelling and great music. This Tristan & Yseult is a Tarantino version of a medieval story.

Does the fact that Tristan & Yseult was first performed outdoors [at Restormel Castle] change how it was made?

This show was made to be outdoors. The structure is invented for the outside: the storytelling, dance, action and music are outward facing – the direct, honest acting exemplified by Craig Johnson (as Brangian) in this show is to do with being in daylight and being able to see the audience.

As the darkness falls the story darkens with it and becomes more introspective – the fourth wall comes in a bit. The audience becomes more like outside observers towards the end of the piece.

Can you tell us a little about the theme of Love in Tristan & Yseult?

Tristan & Yseult is an exploration of the nature of love: the thin line between love and hate, and the dangerous state of falling in love. The dizziness and intoxication of first love, and the next stage does the relationship deepen and strengthen, or does it get boring?

How do you make the decision to stay with someone without the intoxication of the first throes of love? When the love potion wears off?

Interview with Mike Shepherd, June 2013.

Also from this show