Writers: Anna Maria Murphy and Carl Grose
Director and Adapter: Emma Rice
Music: Stu Barker
Reviewer: Harriet Brace
A twelfth century tragedy is hardly what you’d deem a crowd-pleaser, so it’d be easy to assume the anticipation surrounding Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult has been over-egged.
Having made the company’s reputation internationally, resulting in a US tour, and with performances lined up at Shakespeare’s Globe and the Bristol Old Vic following its stint at the Citz, the critical reception has been staggering.
Yet this daring, unique and utterly magical production doesn’t disappoint, and manages to stun, inspire and devastate in equal measure.
Steeped in Celtic tradition, the story begins when Tristan, a knight subject to King Mark of Cornwall, is sent to claim Irish princess Yseult as Queen following Mark’s defeat of her brother in battle. With Tristan wounded and Yseult grieving – both young, vulnerable, keening for adventure and faced with a long sea voyage in each other’s company – the two fall helplessly in love, despite neither being free to indulge their instinctive devotion to one another.
Emma Rice’s production plays with drama, song, comedy and choreography to create an atmosphere that’s rich with emotion. Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo are entrancing as the intoxicated lovers – and it’s as if they are swimming on stage as they enact Tristan and Yseult’s descent into inextricable yearning for one another, their bodies and voices moulding seamlessly.
The gentle, rounded movements of the lovers starkly contrast with the unforgiving yet equally as precise jabs and blows of those jilted in love, and power. Mike Shepherd as King Mark and the ‘brutes’ of the invading Irish battle out a particularly impressive fight scene before Tristan and Yseult’s stars even cross, with cast members crumpling to the ground and somersaulting through the air from ruinous wounds delivered with expert choreographical accuracy.
A live band brings the production’s primary setting, the Club of the Unloved, to life with tunes that tug at the heartstrings – interspersed with the kind of jovial encouragement found at any lonely-hearts karaoke bar. Their unrelenting enthusiasm for their craft, even throughout the interval, has every audience member in the spirit and bopping along, and allows the whole cast to showcase their impressive repertoire on mic or musical instrument.
The production also adopts elements of the circus and even pantomime in its enchantingly bizarre storytelling, with a series of anoraked and bespectacled ‘lovespotters’ side-splitting with their dad-dancing, awkward anecdote-sharing and audience interaction – not to mention their increasingly outlandish headgear.
Niall Ashdown enhances the production’s comedic prowess as Brangian, Yseult’s handmaid – a character at home in a Christmas pantomime and complete with perfectly-timed physical comedy, cross-dressing and envy-inducing quips. Meanwhile Kyle Lima is charmingly Machievellian as Frocin – determined to win King Mark’s favour by any means – and Kirsty Woodward is unsettlingly sultry as spurned companion Whitehands.
The story itself, despite dating back to a distant time of damp castles, dragons and knights, drills down into a quest that’s still at the very core of human existence – the search for love and its permanence, or transience, once we find it.
And Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult is effervescent with feeling; a sensory festival celebrating love in all its gloom and glory. It’s as if the tale simply can’t be contained within the stage, and Rice’s use of different levels, aerial feats, and spellbinding movement echoes that.
Tristan and Yseult is modern theatre at its best; an enduring tale told in an unforgettable and completely original way. It’s one production that is certainly worthy of its legendary roots.
Runs until 3 June 2017 | Image: Steve Tanner