Cornwall Living 2016

Kneehigh Theatre

From humble beginnings, this Cornish company now fly the flag for UK theatre on an international stage, but they haven’t forgotten their roots. Here we explore their thirty-four year history, and find out what they’re up to in Cornwall this year.

You could say that Kneehigh was born out of adversity. Mike Shepherd had left his native Cornwall to seek the bright lights of the city, but after a soul-crushing period of militant London fringe theatre and even the rejection of his bottom by an advertising agency, he returned to Cornwall. He believed this to be a place where you can make things happen, and that is exactly what he did!

He forged a company to make theatre: a graphic artist, a punk guitarist and a farmer were among the itinerant individuals who joined forces to cook up shows. There were no trained actors, but these first Kneehigh company members quickly learned to get their hands dirty, to turn on a sixpence, and, most importantly, to tell stories to anyone almost anywhere.

Kneehigh’s first show was about the world’s-greatest-but-failed stunt man. It played to audiences everywhere: in schools, village halls, quarries, fields and harbour sides, but never theatres, Shows were preceded by stunts involving death defying leaps in the dark. The work was eclectic and anarchic, a non-theatre going audience quickly built up, and Kneehigh grew.

Kneehigh often quote the artist Joan Míro: “To be truly universal you must be truly local”. This aspiration remains at the heart of all they do. A proud moment for the company came a few years ago when they were playing to sell-out audiences in London’s West End with Brief Encounter, in Columbia with their version of Cymbeline, and in Cornish village halls with BLAST! all at the same time.

“Kneehigh is the champagne in the veins heartbeat of Cornwall – although rooted in the community which spawned them, their timeless imagination has an international language that brings pleasure to everyone wherever they are” Tim Smit, Eden Project

Wherever possible Kneehigh make shows at home in their barns on the coast. They are the opposite of the dark and characterless rehearsal rooms that exist many theatres. The Barns let in sunlight and wind (in fact, most weather!), are filled with colour, music, food, warmth, oddities, eccentricities and

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delights – a Molotov cocktail of inspiration. The Barns inspire a sense of glee: a word which mixes delight and naughtiness.

This glee is the fuel of Kneehigh’s shows. They walk a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, and naughtiness is never far from the surface: the company is often described by the press as ‘irreverent’ or ‘maverick’, a claim they are quietly proud of Their recent version of Tristan & Yseult walks this line between comedy and tragedy perfectly, with a chorus of geeky ‘lovespotters’ providing both comic relief from the heart-breaking central story, and then themselves delivering a powerful punch as we realise we’re watching the story through the eyes of the ‘unloved’.

The original story of Tristan & Yseult, like many Cornish legends from hundreds of years ago, was spread far and wide by sailors and traders, as Cornwall was once the centre of shipping routes all over the globe. The story has been edited, re-told, changed and adapted to suit its audience, but its roots are in Cornish soil. As for the story, so for the story-tellers. Tristan & Yseult has been an international success story, playing in Australia, New Zealand, America and all over the UK, and in the last year alone Kneehigh have racked up 250 international performances.

But despite international success, like the men and women who spread the story of Tristan & Yseult throughout the trade routes of the world, Kneehigh return to their native soil, to recharge and regroup, and tell tales of their adventures overseas.

And triumphantly they return! In September Kneehigh take root at the magical Lost Gardens of Heligan, presenting their new show, which they’ve been cooking up in the Barns just a stone’s throw from the gardens.

Their new show is called Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs), and is a musical, radical, dark and hilarious retelling of John Gay’s classic Beggar’s Opera, complete with a gorgeous and powerful live score, exquisite puppetry, a cast of world-class actor-musicians, and yes, a dead dog in a suitcase!

They’ll be presenting the show in their Asylum tent – a beautiful, nomadic, welcoming structure: a shelter, sanctuary, madhouse and home. From 28th August for four weeks they invite you in to share their stories and to celebrate our delicious time on the planet with world-class theatre, fantastic music, food, drink and revelry.

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All Images: Steve Tanner