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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 16th April 2005

Tristan & Yseult / The Cosmonaut's Last Message / Mammals

Alarm bells were ringing even before the curtain went up at Tristan & Yseult, a retelling of Tristan & Isolde devised by a Cornish company called Kneehigh Theatre. The programme came bagged with a white balloon and some Love Hearts, while the ushers, who were clearly members of the company, sported anoraks and balaclavas and tried to engage members of the audience in conversation. It all seemed to be part of an attempt to create a carnivalesque atmosphere, to put the audience on notice that we were in for a riotous time.

From the moment the play began, I could tell it wasn't going to be my cup of tea. Stylistically and tonally, Tristan & Yseult is a complete mishmash--deliberately so, no doubt. Kneehigh began life by putting on plays for children on village greens and, at times, Tristan & Yseult resembles a three-ring circus, with trampolines and trapezes and so forth. At other times, though, it seems to take its inspiration from Pulp Fiction, with violent fight scenes accompanied by twanging guitar music. It's a hodgepodge of broad comedy and portentous melodrama, vernacular speech and pretentious doggerel, straightforward narration and tricksy post-modernism.

Some members of the audience seemed to be enjoying this promiscuous mixture of different theatrical techniques and I might have been inclined to give Tristan & Yseult the benefit of the doubt were it not for the company's cavalier disregard for the simple business of telling the story. In my experience, you can only get away with this sort of thing if all the story elements are in place--and that isn't the case here, unfortunately. The writers of Tristan & Yseult--Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy--have left out too many basic plot points and the upshot is that it's impossible to follow what's going on unless you're already familiar with the ancient legend. And it's not as if they don't have time to include a few more details. Tristan & Yseult has a running time of two hours and 20 minutes, yet it seems to go on for twice as long because so many of the scenes take an eternity to convey a single point.

The director and adapter, Emma Rice, takes a swipe at Hollywood in the programme notes, claiming that her method of telling a story is superior because it's less commercial. But even the most crude Hollywood shclockmeisters have a rudimentary grasp of the connection between plot and character. The main storyline of Tristan & Yseult concerns a love triangle between two men and one woman, but it's so inadequately told that you never have a sense of what makes the characters tick. It's left to the actors to try and get across why it is they're so sexually excited by one another and, given how physically unappealing they are, this is an uphill struggle. I simply couldn't get past the fact that King Mark, the patriarch of the story, is the spitting image of Nicholas De Jongh.

The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union is, in it's own way, just as bad. The author, a Scotsman called David Greig, has somehow managed to get it into his head that the increasing isolation of man in the modern world--his chronic inability to communicate with his fellow man--is a startlingly original observation rather than the biggest cliché of post-war European theatre. The result is a self-consciously "serious" play that manages to say nothing that hasn't already been said a thousand times before.

The intellectual paucity of The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union--which was first performed in 1999--wouldn't be so hard to take if it had anything resembling a plot. Alas, Greig is so fond of his central idea that he incorporates it into the form as well as the content of the play so that, on the surface at least, the meaning of what you're witnessing is deliberately obscured. The actors morph in and out of different roles, switching accents seemingly at random, so it's never completely clear whether they're supposed to be playing entirely new characters or the same ones having undergone some sort of sea change. Just when you think you've mastered the rules Greig is playing by, he breaks them again, keeping you constantly off balance. No doubt he thinks of this as immensely clever, but, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, this kind of avant-garde experimentation is like playing tennis without a net. With a running time of over two-and-a-half hours, The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union is almost unendurably dull.

Happily, I can end on a positive note. Mammals, a new play by Amelia Bullmore, is a real treat. It's theme, again not particularly original, is that men and women's efforts to sustain committed, monogamous relationships are constantly being undermined by rogue sexual impulses, with the resulting extra-curricular liaisons often being designed to inflict as much damage as possible on the person sitting opposite them at the breakfast table. What's so impressive about Mammals--apart from the fact that it has a proper story, four well-drawn characters and some genuinely funny jokes--is the new ways it finds to flesh out this idea. For instance, the main female character, Jane, has two children, aged four and six, and they're both played by adults. At first, I couldn't see the point of this, beyond the fact that it's quite funny, but then it dawned on me. The vaguely sexual things that young children do, such as intertwining themselves in their parents' limbs, become much more obviously inappropriate when they're being impersonated by grown ups. This, in turn, illustrates Bullmore's central point, namely, that it's impossible to completely suppress our primordial, atavistic selves.

Mammals is the first really good new play I've seen this year. If you're willing to brave the almost daily gun battles on Shepherd's Bush Green, it's definitely worth a visit.

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