Kneehigh Theatre’s revival of Tristan & Yseult—for all that is wonderful about it, and there is much—highlights a problem I have been encountering in the theater recently: there is too much clowning around. In Tristan & Yseult, that was manifested in the tour de force physicality of the piece. Lovers swung on trapezes to represent their intoxication, and at one point or another, practically everyone ran, danced, and jumped over the multilevel set. It was invigorating, but also distracting, the pleasure of the individual moments obscuring the contours of a story, which, while simple, was more complicated than I’d expected it would be.
Exacerbating the problem was the overall silliness of the production. Jokes abounded, making up the fabric of the show, rather than embellishing it. In and of itself, that’s not a problem, but one realizes toward the end of the show that it strives to be more, as in beautiful and somber moments like the reconciliation between King Mark and Yseult accompanied by the aching strains of Nick Cave’s “Sweetheart Come” or the grand lyricism of the white sail unfurling to make up the set’s backdrop as Tristan waits to see if the approaching boat bears Yseult or not—white sails if it does, black if it doesn’t—and his wife, crushed knowing that he cannot live without Yseult, covers his eyes and tells him the sails are black, though the audience can see they’re not. The scenes have power but they don’t feel sufficiently powerful by that point in the play. In spite of Nick Cave. In spite of Wagner, for God’s sake. Not after all the clownish foppery that had preceded it.
In fact, even the scene with the sail was undercut by humorous visual echoes—one suspects they were intended merely to be exuberantly emphatic—that the sails are white, including one of the buffoons making up the chorus sprinting across the stage with a white flag. This is a scene during which Tristan is dying of a wound that will not heal because of his love for Yseult. In Kneehigh’s unfolding of this scene, the pain is anesthetized, the tragedy lightened, made spectacle, just another part of the show.
I saw something similar last year in Ten Thousand Things’ production of The Seven, a hip-hop re-imagining of Aeschylus’s tragedy The Seven Against Thebes. Trying to engage an audience who could give two rips about Greek tragedy, playwright Will Powers slathered on the jokes so thick the tragedy barely showed through, a tendency Ten Thousand Things was only glad to indulge. In the end, The Seven was entertaining but struggled to be more, and none of the improvised asides to the audience, designed to collude with them, to help them cross that distance between stage and house so vast but so easily crossed if one wants to cross it, actually helped.
It’s not that humor doesn’t belong in tragedy. No less a tragedian than Shakespeare understood that humor can sharpen the pang of tragedy. It’s not even that clowning has to be silly. Kneehigh’s own Brief Encounter used similar techniques that they use in Tristan & Yseult. But in Brief Encounter, they used more restraint, serving the needs of the story, not muddying it with funny business. Tragedy is the self finally meeting itself in what it is not. It is about being brought up short. It’s not fooling around. It hurts.
The other day, I heard Alain de Botton on the TED Radio Hour speaking about success, and he suggested that tragedy has an important role in helping us cope with failure in ourselves and others, which is especially important in a success-driven culture like ours. De Botton pointed out how much we fear failing because we fear that others will judge and define us as “losers.” And that’s where tragedy comes in. “Tragic art,” de Botton said, “was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, also according them a level of sympathy. […] It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost, and I think that is the message of tragedy to us and why it’s so very, very important.”
But it’s not enough to merely see somebody fail, whether presented sympathetically or not. We need to be stung by the pain of it. We can be stung while we’re laughing, keenly, but not if we can’t truly see the joke. We don’t need guffaws, we need what Samuel Beckett calls “the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs—silence please—at that which is unhappy.”