DramaReviewSouth West

Tristan and Yseult – Bristol Old Vic

Writers: Anna Marie Murphy and Carl Grose

Adaptor and Director: Emma Rice

Reviewer: Kris Hallett

If theatre ever had their own version of Desert Island Discs, Kneehigh would have to be a strong contender for the luxury item. No company brings as much joy to a packed auditorium as them when they are in full flow. No company fulfils the mantra of ‘it’ll be different every night’ as much as this Cornish company who take the concept of play to a higher level. So much theatre ends up a 30-second supper conversation after soon forgotten. Kneehigh creates a family. It creates love. It creates devotion.

Everyone has their favourite work but the one that perhaps changed the fortunes of the company gave them the international acclaim, along with building the reputation of a certain Emma Rice, is their take on the Anglo-Norman myth Tristan and Yseult. The basic premise of the tale remains the same; King Mark (company founder Mike Shepherd bringing dignity and humanity to a complex character) sends his trusted Knight Tristan (Dominic Marsh) to collect the Irish princess (Hannah Vassallo) who he intends to marry. An instant attraction turns even more potent with the help of a love potion and the two soon can’t keep their minds, and hands, off each other. Transcendent passion and destructive devastation sit side by side in antithesis, for every person who is loved too much, there is always someone else filling in their membership to the club of lonely souls.

Rice’s work is a symphony of performance; theatre, music, stand-up, music hall, cabaret and dance collaborating side by side in a demonstration of total theatre. Its work brimming with ideas, yet Rice ensures that even through the non-stop kinaesthetic staging, ideas and story beats aren’t missed. Rice is at her best delving into a works soul, her staging draws out themes and motifs and illuminates work in a way that an audience won’t expect. The fandango around the Globe should hopefully be a brief footnote in the tale of her career, her work here puts her firmly in a very small band of world-class directors we have in the UK. 

Its work built on the strong idea, of a director fully in control of the tiller, yet also one prepared to find and work with the most creative of performers and giving them permission to create, create, create. This is the third revival of the work but is the furthest thing from a West End cast change. The structure stays the same but the details change. Marsh and Vasallo make an attractive, sexually charged pair, the former displaying the same bare-chested peacock swagger he put to good use in Dead Dog In A Suitcase, the latter moving with the fluid ease that you would expect of someone who has spent the past few years with Matthew Bourne.

Its bold, populist colour is subtly darkened in the second half with two exquisite moments. In the first, the cross-dressing maid (Niall Ashdown-superb) replaces her Queen in the marital bed and soliloquizes the pain of being overlooked in the game of love and at the end Kirsty Woodward, who has provided film star glamour in the role of narrator, reveals the pain of looking at a great love from the outside. Great love affairs create casualties. There is always a sting. It enriches a night that was already glittering. No wonder the audience broke into raucous cheers like groupies at an Ed Sheeran concert when the lights dimmed. It is one of the joyful nights of theatre.

Runs until 15 July 2017 | Image: Steve Tanner

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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