Tristan and Yseult

Writers: Anna Maria Murphy and Carl Grose

Director: Emma Rice

In theory, a play about Cornish separatists shouldn’t be very engaging. Amusing, perhaps, but not quite as edifying, energising and life-affirming as this production of the timeless Tristan and Iseult (aka Yseult or Isolde) from Cornwall’s own Kneehigh theatre company.

This retelling of the other legend of doomed lovers begins almost imperceptibly, a live band playing in the background as patrons find their seats and peruse the programmes, which happen to contain white balloons. Meanwhile, geeky-looking folk on the floor (the Quarry Theatre is almost in the round) peer at their audience through binoculars, claiming to be observing relationships.

Gradually, as the room fills, we learn that we are currently in the Club of the Unloved. These observers, uniformly dressed in anoraks and snoods, are the titular romantic outcasts, doomed to view such interaction from afar. Rather than the traditionally intimate telling of classic romantic tales, this performance shows us the events from a detached point of view, the love-spotters circling a raised central stage, often breaking the fourth wall for comic effect.

Once the introductions are made (a favourite being King Mark of Cornwall/Kernow, whose every entrance is accompanied by Carl Orff’s O Fortuna), any attempt at subtlety flies out of the window, as a very able cast hurls itself – often literally – into the telling of the story with infectious energy and exuberance. While Tristan (Tristan Sturrock) and Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska) make fine use of prop ropes as though they were attempting to merge TRX workouts with acrobatics, special mention must be given to Carly Bawden. Bawden plays Whitehands, our narrator, princess of the unloved, who it also turns out is quite exquisite at singing and dancing. The cast as a whole are impressive, balancing the emotional, the physical and the comical very well.

The energy carries the plot along very nicely, itself a relatively simple tale of promises, betrayal and love potions. The play seems to lose its way somewhat after the interval, perhaps a symptom of making its running time two hours. That said, the cast and song selection more than compensate, as does the black and white theme. Babies should be baptised in black, the argument goes, so as to hide any stains picked up through the journey of life. The audience is asked to participate at points, for example the inflation and release of our white balloons during a wedding scene. The theme of colour, specifically our friend Whitehands, is a focal point of the conclusion, but that is something not to be spoiled by revealing it here. Tristan and Yseult, and Kneehigh, are highly recommended.

This review originally appeared in The Public Reviews

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