Thursday, July 6, 2017


James Karas

If you don’t know the story of Tristan and Yseult (aka Isolde) then you should. Tristan is sent by King Mark of Cornwall to fetch the Irish princess Yseult. He kills her brother and she nurses him to health using a special potion. On the way to Cornwall, Yseult’s servant Brangian gives them a potion and they fall in love. Tristan betrays his King. Mark is not too happy about this but in the end Tristan and Yseult die and find happiness elsewhere.

Let’s go to Shakespeare’s Globe theatre where Kneehigh, a theatre company based in Cornwall is putting on Tristan & Yseult, a play adapted and directed by Emma Rice, and written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy. Kneehigh, we are told in the programme, is based in breath-taking barns on the south coast of England and tells stories on an epic and tiny scale.
The cast of Tristan and Yseult. Photo: Steve Tanner
Their telling of the Tristan story can be described as a takeoff, a farce, a travesty, a comedy sketch, a cabaret concert or a circus performance. You will find elements of all of these because the sole aim of Kneehigh is to entertain. There is dancing, singing, some acrobatics and a lot of shenanigans on stage.

We have Tristan (Dominic Marsh) who is French and brave and sports a wound on his stomach that was healed and bandaged by Yseult (Hannah Vassallo). Her lady Brangian (Niall Ashdown in drag) will provide potions but more importantly Ashdown will prove that he is a natural comic actor and provide a lot of laughter.

Mike Shepherd as King Mark is more serious but he too manages some laughs whereas his busy-body underling Frocin (Kyle Lima) will be more entertaining. We also have Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), white gloves, white purse and 1950’s going-to-church hat and dress, as our guide and commentator.

That is the least of what they do. The dozen performers on stage are Love Spotters, dancers, musicians, singers and quick-change artists.

There is also a band that plays a number of songs and we do hear Tristan’s chord and a bit of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Stu Barker provides additional music.
The company whooping it up. Photo: Steve Tanner
So far so good but are all those parts enough for a production at Shakespeare’s Globe? There were people in the audience, especially the very young, who loved the show. When one of the performers did some break dancing, they burst into wild applause. They loved the music (minus Wagner). Almost all the action was directed towards the audience with relatively little interaction among the actors. The audience loved it and they reacted favorably or enthusiastically to singing along or to blowing up balloons.  

Although I admired some of the comic business I found it a bit too light and too little for an evening at the theatre. Is Emma Rice trying to attract teenagers to Shakespeare’s Globe? Some people, especially teenagers, may find that a laudable goal but I am far removed from that age group. They can have their fun but I can’t get excited over a couple of break dancing contortions.

Tristan and Yseult by Emma Rice (adaptor and director) and Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy (writers) was performed from June 13 to 24, 2017 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.comThe Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

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