Created in a draughty barn in Cornwall, Kneehigh's individual style of theatre has won growing national and international acclaim, writes Terry Grimley...

Apart from the colonies of artists who were drawn to its coasts at various times, Cornwall has tended to be noted more for its natural beauty than artistic innovation.

But now a company born and bred in the county over the last quarter of a century is emerging as one of the most innovative and pacesetting in British theatre.

Kneehigh Theatre seems to have joined that distinguished succession of small companies like Shared Experience, Cheek by Jowl and Complicite who have emerged from left field over the last few decades to challenge and reinvigorate the theatrical status quo.

The latest indication that this long-maturing company has finally arrived centre-stage is an invitation from the Royal Shakespeare Company for Kneehigh to take part in next year's Complete Shakespeare festival in Stratford-upon-Avon.

But its hit production of Tristan and Yseult, which pays two visits to the West Midlands this autumn, has already found it collaborating with the National Theatre, where it enjoyed a sold-out run thanks to its idiosyncratic mix of "cross-dressing, swing band music, line-dancing, audience participation, knifethrowing, karaoke and rhyming couplets".

These dizzy heights are far removed from the company's downto- earth origins, charmingly described in its own publicity:

"In Cornwall, 1980, a village school teacher began to run theatre workshops in his spare time. In due course a mixture of people became involved; a farmer, the sign writer from Tesco, several students, a thrash guitarist from a local band, an electrician. No actors . . . nobody who had been trained. The workshops took place in the spirit of cheerful anarchy and casually slipped into performance, and finally the production of shows.

"There were no theatres or arts centres in Cornwall: Kneehigh created theatre for families in locations within their communities, village halls, marquees, harboursides . . . and less conventional places. They created theatre on cliff-tops, in preaching pits and quarries, amongst gunpowder works and arsenic wastes, up trees, down holes, where the river meets the sea and where woodland footpaths end . . ."

From such folksy origins, the company has gradually built an inernational reputation. When I spoke recently to artistic director Emma Rice, she was just back from a whirlwind three-day visit to Australia where Tristan and Yseult will soon be seen.

Though now a thoroughly professoinal outfit - Rice, who is originally from Nottingham, has been associated with the company for a decade - it remains true to its Cornish roots.

"It's very, very powerful," she told me.

"We had a party last night and there were people here from 25 years ago. We're all professionals, but we're like a left-handed theatre company - we don't quite do things the way other people do. We're not always looking for the best actors, we look for the best actors for Kneehigh. They pop up from the most unexpected places, even today."

Nowadays, she notes with satisfaction, the company has become an adjective. A certain style of visually extravagant storytelling theatre is apt to be called "Kneehigh-ist".

"It's anarchic, surprising," she sums it up.

"We're always acknowledging our relationship with the audience, and we swing very naturally between comedy and tragedy."

Of Tristan and Yseult, initailly staged for a four-week run in Cornwall two-and-a-half years ago, she says: "It's one of those dream projects. It's the oldest Cornish story and the most fantastic exploration of love you will ever see.

"It's set in a club and there's lots of live music all the way through. It's a Cornish story, so it's set in Cornwall. We have no axe to grind but it's the story of our chosen place and it's been stolen by places all round the world. It's fantastic to retrieve it from the Wagners of the world."

Next year the company will be tackling Cymbeline as its contribution to the RSC's complete Shakespeare festival.

"We haven't done any Shakespeare and we probably wouldn't have done if it had not been for this. We always felt that other people were doing it very well and some people were doing it very badly. But I think the 2006 season is so exciting and so brazen in its ambition. It's so cavalier of Michael Boyd to do it."

Not surprisingly, concern has been expressed that Kneehigh's continued success might weaken its commitment to Cornwall, but it is a prospect Emma Rice is quick to dismiss.

"For me the most radical thing about Kneehigh is that we choose to make work in Cornwall in an old draughty barn on a clifftop we rent from the National Trust. We get cold and go running on the cliff. It's that choice not to join the rat race. The company would fold before it moved to London. It's a fantastic place to travel away from, to travel to the great cities of this country."

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