Written by Carol Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Tristan and Yseult is now in the midst of its seventh run. The show is a stunning tribute to Cornish legend incorporating folk music, Wagner’s operatic score, and popular music. Kneehigh’s nearly 40 year experience in creating and performing drama shows in this fabulous play, one of the company’s most popular since its first run in 2003.
Based on a legend with both Celtic and Germanic origins, Tristan and Yseult tells the story of a pair of lovers doomed to tragedy. Tristan is sent to fetch the beautiful Yseult from Ireland after the Cornish King Mark has killed Morholt, Yseult’s brother. On the voyage him, Tristan and Yseult fall hopelessly in love with one another, but as the son and future wife of King Mark, the couple must resist their attraction to one another. However, when desire for one another proves too much and their assignations are observed by Mark’s loyal servant Frocin, it is all Tristan and Yseult can do to cling to one another and pray for mercy. Accompanied by Yseult’s maid Brangian, a host of ‘the Unloved’, and the mysterious Whitehands, Tristan and Yseult travel from Ireland to Cornwall and then on to France in a bid to understand what it means to love and be loved.
Tristan and Yseult is a triumph of modern theatre. Exciting and passionate with a touch of melodrama, the musical tells a tale as old as those of King Arthur but sets it against the backdrop of a bluesy 70s nightclub, The Club of the Unloved. Using a mixture of live and recorded music, including sections from the Prelude to Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde, the show strikes a balance between pantomime-esque farce and hard-hitting, emotional tragedy. The company of actors delivers a wonderful performance, each member acting as one of the Unloved while also taking on another role within the play. Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo’s on-stage chemistry as Tristan and Yseult is palpable, while Niall Ashdown and Kyle Lima shine in their roles as Brangian and Frocin. The Unloved are fantastically conspicuous stagehands, visible throughout and interacting with the characters while maintaining a distance from the action of the play. The numerous interspersions of comic relief, provided largely by Ashdown and Lima and often occurring alongside much more dramatic and tense moments in the script, serve to lightening the tone of the musical. They in no way, however, diminish the impact of the passion or the hard truths that the story of Tristan and Yseult has to offer.
The use of music and choreography to convey the story is nothing short of expert, and the set, though minimal and mostly static for the entirety of the performance, is used to great effect. One particular highlight is that the action on stage continues through the interval, the Unloved moving around and singing various jazzy songs throughout. In this way, when the second half begins, there is no disruption whatsoever from the world you are embroiled in from the moment the play begins. Overall, this musical is a great piece of theatre that mixes a variety of genres to form a heart-warming story of love and loss.
(photo credits: Brian Roberts)