Friday, 16 June 2017

Theatre review: Tristan & Yseult

Tristan & Yseult was one of the shows that catapulted Kneehigh from Westcountry touring company to major name in UK theatre, and as Emma Rice's second and final summer season at Shakespeare's Globe has a "Summer of Love" theme, her take on the mediaeval romance takes the South Bank in as part of a new tour. Tristan (Dominic Marsh) is a French prince allied to King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd,) who helped the king defend against an Irish invasion. As part of his reparation, Mark demands the Irish king's sister Yseult as a bride, and sends Tristan to collect her. Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) swears eternal hatred for the man who killed her brother, but also brings along a love potion to help her get on with her new husband. One mix-up later and the two are in love, or at the very least passionate lust.

When they arrive back in Cornwall Yseult genuinely falls for Mark, and Tristan remains loyal to him, but the effects of the potion mean they can't help but carry on with their affair.


I've tended not to get on too well with Kneehigh shows in the past and Tristan & Yseult has all their hallmarks, but for my money it manages to balance its tone much better than some I've seen: Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy have written the piece in rhyming couplets that keep the show light and lyrical without it turning twee, and while Rice throws all her signature music, dance and circus skills at the stage it doesn't feel as if she's fired the whimsy gun at it.


Inspired by the narrator Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward,) whose real identity we don't discover until the end, the framing device is the Club of the Unloved, giving a setting for the songs, and when not playing their main characters the whole cast wear anoraks as "Love Spotters," who've been left at the sidelines of violent love stories like this one. The trio in the love triangle make for a vibrant centre to the story but the heart of it is Niall Ashdown as Yseult's maid Brangian. Being a Kneehigh show this predates Rice's own diverse casting policy, with men far outnumbering women, but there's a logic to putting this character in drag, making her so explicitly comic relief that it hits home when we see how minor female characters like this are often plot devices who sacrifice a lot in service of the main romance.


Kyle Lima gets a few scene-stealing moments too as the jealous Frocin, while Omari Douglas and Tom Jackson Greaves provide the rest of the characters. Rice, Grose and Murphy do lose control of the storytelling near the end, as they have to dump a load of exposition on who Whitehands is and what Tristan's refrain of "black or white?" throughout the show has meant. But mostly this hits the right notes, landing on effortless charm rather than overcooked whimsy, and manages the tricky transition from light romance to understated tragedy.

Tristan & Yseult by Carl Grose, Anna Maria Murphy and Emma Rice is booking until the 24th of June at Shakespeare's Globe; then continuing on tour to Mold, Bristol and Galway.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Steve Tanner.

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