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Tristan & Yseult

  • Theater, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Tristan and Yseult. St. Ann’s Warehouse (see Off Broadway). By Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy. Adapted and directed by Emma Rice. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.

Tristan and Yseult: In brief

Emma Rice and her Kneehigh Theatre enchanted New York audiences with their adaptation of Noël Coward's Brief Encounter in 2009 and have returned to St. Ann's several times since. Their latest offering is a stylish adaptation (by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy) of the tragic adulterous love story between a French knight and an Irish princess.

Tristan and Yseult: Theater review by Helen Shaw

You enter a Kneehigh production already humming; somewhere there’s always a band, doing a fiddle-heavy version of, say, a Police song, jollying you into a whimsical mood. The miracle about Tristan and Yseult, the Cornish company’s 2003 version of the medieval romance, is that we stay on that delightful wavelength for the whole evening. Tristan’s strongest when silliest, silliest when soberest. But it’s also a welcome instance of folktale-based physical theater that doesn’t turn twee. Are there balloons? Of course there are balloons. Yet thanks to delicately calibrated comic performances, all this gale-force sweetness never goes saccharine.

The piece swarms with storytelling devices—furious narrator Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), who welcomes us to the Club of the Unloved, and the Unloved chorus itself, a flock of (I swear) shy bird-watchers in knitted hats. That these costume items recall 13th-century balaclavas is just one of Bill Mitchell’s design jokes. As the chorus tentatively hops onto the bare stage, they become ancient characters, keeping, as they say, “love at arm’s length.” Cornwall’s King Mark (Mike Shepherd) and his long-lost son, Tristan (Dominic Marsh), defeat the Irish knight Morholt (hugely funny Niall Ashdown) the usual way—by throwing knives, then rebounding from bouncy circus mats. Mark then dispatches Tristan to fetch Morholt’s sister, Yseult (Hannah Vassallo), so she can become Mark’s queen. Tristan, though, is a suave Breton in sexy sunglasses, so soon the young pair lift (literally) off their feet with passion, acrobatically assisted by pulleys, of course.

Adaptors Emma Rice, Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy move from modern idiom to olden-time doggerel gracefully, and they ask a lot from their performers—the piece requires an embarrassment of virtuosity. Everyone does double- and triple-duty: Mark’s henchman (Damon Daunno) sings ethereal falsetto with Stu Barker’s marvelous band, and the hard-working ensemble juggles a number of supporting roles when not physically hoisting one another onto the stage.

The tale loses itself in the final third, but by then, we’re seduced and giggling, drunk as a monk in a tapestry. “Take all this lightly!” the show seems to say. “It’s just love! It’s just the absence of love!” And then it undercuts that insouciance by throwing the company’s hearts at us, overwhelming us with their own delight. Tristan makes us feel thoroughly embraced. Ah, love!—Theater review by Helen Shaw

THE BOTTOM LINE Kneehigh makes us swoon with stagecraft.

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