NEW YORK — Emma Rice scrunches up her nose in mock disdain, like she’s just sniffed a rancid piece of fish. She’s recalling a colleague’s suggestion that she direct a new version of the ancient myth “Tristan and Iseult” for their United Kingdom-based Kneehigh theater. A story of star-crossed lovers that’s said to have inspired Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the 12th-century Celtic legend has been adapted many times over the years, most famously in Richard Wagner’s monumental 1865 opera, “Tristan und Isolde.”
There were several reasons for that scornful reaction. Not only had Rice, now joint artistic director of Kneehigh, long been turned off by Wagner’s opus (”I can’t bear that puffed-up, high-operatic sound,” she says), but medieval torture seemed more appealing than adapting a story set in the sword-in-stone Middle Ages.
“I had no interest in dragons and knights in shining armor. I still don’t. ‘Game of Thrones’ is like hell to me,” she said.
But after peeling back the layers of the ancient myth, she began to see her own personal connection to the story of the dashing knight, Tristan, and Celtic princess, Yseult, who embark on an adulterous love affair behind the back of Yseult’s betrothed, the Cornish King Mark.
“When I pulled away all the medieval trappings, I thought, ‘Now, this is actually my story,’ ” Rice said last fall, over breakfast in Brooklyn, where she was overseeing the premiere of “Tristan & Yseult” at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The original 2003 production became a watershed moment for Kneehigh, raising the company’s profile in the United Kingdom and putting it on the international radar. A new tour of the show, presented by ArtsEmerson, arrives at the Paramount Center Thursday and runs through March 15.
“It’s a hall of mirrors for me,” said Rice, 47. “I’ve fallen in love with the wrong people and hurt people I love and wrestled with the really dark emotions of being unfaithful, of being false and dishonest, of loving too much, of not being loved.
“On a very specific level, ‘Tristan & Yseult’ came fairly shortly after my divorce from a man I loved very much, whom I left for another man that I loved very much,” she continued. “Not that the show is about me, but it’s absolutely built on the knowledge of what it is to be torn between two people you love. There’s a line in it, which is ‘The harm that love can do.’ And it was terrible for many years.”
The details of the legend differ in various incarnations. The Kneehigh version begins with French knight Tristan (Dominic Marsh) defeating Celtic warrior Morholt. Tristan is then instructed by King Mark (Mike Shepard), his Cornish uncle and father-figure, to travel to Ireland and bring back Morholt’s elfin sister, the princess Yseult (Hannah Vassallo), for the king to take as a wife. But Tristan and Yseult share a palpable chemistry, and after ingesting a love potion, they fall madly in love. The young maiden weds King Mark, yet the two lovers carry on a secret affair. When the king learns of their betrayal, he must choose whether to execute the man he considers a son and the woman he’s grown to love, or spare their lives and instead banish them from the kingdom.
What Rice appreciated most about the story was its lack of judgment toward the characters and their actions. “It doesn’t say, ‘You should not love two people,’ ” she said. “Everybody is doing their best in the human mess that is love, and I love it for that.”
As with its adaptation of the 1945 David Lean film, “Brief Encounter,” which made it to Broadway in 2010, Kneehigh combines stagecraft, whimsy, and lyricism to create a wildly inventive aesthetic.
“It was a really important show for us and a pivotal point of our history, because it was the show that the National Theatre saw and picked up and invested in,” Rice said. Because of that, Kneehigh decided to mount a 10th anniversary tour of the show in 2013.
The story resonated in particular for Kneehigh, because it’s set in bucolic Cornwall on the far southwest coast of England, which has been the theater company’s home base since its founding in 1980.
“It was a beloved piece, in part, because it’s this ancient Cornish story. So politically, we’re thrilled that we’ve reclaimed it from the Germanic opera tradition and were able to say, ‘No, this is our story,’ ” said Rice.
The devised show, written by longtime company members Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, captures the ecstatic highs and disastrous lows of love. With a nightclub atmosphere and an onstage band performing everything from “Only the Lonely” and “Dream Lover” to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” the show begins as a rollicking party complete with dance sequences, ravishing, handcrafted visuals, Python-esque shenanigans, and white balloons deflating in a celebratory fusillade. There are even acrobatics, as the elixir-soused lovers are hoisted into the air to perform a twisting and turning aerial seduction. But by the second act, the tables get turned.
Indeed, Rice wanted to celebrate not only epic, star-crossed love stories, but also the loneliness, longing, and heartbreak to which most ordinary people can relate.
“Especially with the wreckage I was working through in my personal life, the one thing I had no interest in is the beautiful people living their special lives — you know, kings and queens and all that. I thought the only way I want to tell the story of the most loved people, this grand romantic story, is through the eyes of the people who
aren’t those special people.”
So as a frame for the show, Rice conceived the chorus of the unloved: bespectacled, binocular-toting Lovespotters (wearing dark-hooded raincoats), for whom love remains at arm’s length, as exotic and unattainable as a rare bird.
“We’re fed this dream of what it is to be in this heightened, passionate state. And most of one’s life is not experienced in that state, and some people very rarely have it,” Rice said. “So I wanted that contrast.”
So juxtaposed against the star-crossed love triangle of Tristan, Yseult, and King Mark are the experiences of Yseult’s loyal maid, Brangian (Niall Ashdown), who dutifully stands in for her ladyship on her wedding night so her husband will still think she’s a virgin; the king’s devoted right-hand man, Frocin (Damon Daunno), who catches the lovers in the red-hot act; and the mysterious, pillbox hat-wearing Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), who narrates some of the story and has a close connection to one of its characters.
When it’s not touring the world, Kneehigh now stages its shows in Cornwall inside a giant white tent called the Asylum. But for much of its history, it performed outdoors by firelight, often battling rain and wind. In fact, “Tristan & Yseult” first premiered at Restormel Castle, with the stone battlements as part of the set — although Shepard calls their version “more Tarantino than it is medieval.”
“Obviously the work has moved on. But that basic desire to tell a story in a robust, vigorous way has stayed the same. I like to think the new work has still got that same elemental rawness to it,” said Shepard, who founded Kneehigh in 1980 and still serves as joint artistic director.
While she was classically trained, Rice first got her start as an actor in children’s theater, and that focus on storytelling transformation and a willing suspension of disbelief has informed her approach to theater-making.
“I really want people to feel like they’ve drunk a big gulp of humanity by the end,” Rice said. “I want it to be like a really delicious glass of wine. That’s why I do it — to breathe in life and drink in the wonders of the people around me.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail