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Review of Tristan & Yseult – Kneehigh at the Globe

The Company of Tristan & Yseult © Richard Termine
The Company of Tristan & Yseult © Richard Termine

There are occasions when it is simply impossible for a production to breach the fourth wall. Tristan and Yseult is a good example of this. The fourth wall cannot be breached if the fourth wall wasn’t put up in the first place. The repeated encouragement of audience participation (nobody – spoiler alert – is forced on stage to be embarrassed in front of everyone) helps maintain interest in a show that borders on barmy on occasion. “Turn around!” the audience is instructed, several times, before the punchline finally comes. “Turn around and use your imagination!” How glorious.

It always amazes me quite how many people who attend Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre are prepared to stand for the duration of an entire play – up to 700 per performance, the theatre’s staff told me – though for the princely sum of £5, who can blame them? As the audience filed into the auditorium prior to the start of the show, and then again prior to the second half, a band plays contemporary music: look out for what I can only consider the most remarkable rendering of ‘Every Breath You Take’ I’ve ever encountered.

When the Royal Opera House last put on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 2014, the running time was close to five hours, justifying two intervals. This adaptation runs at an infinitely more comfortable 2 hours 10 minutes. Using spoken word rather than operatic vocals reduces the running time considerably; most of the script is also in verse, packing more narrative into each line. There are moments during which the stage is kept almost pointlessly busy, with people rushing about – but why and where to is never made clear. It’s a pity, really, that Emma Rice’s services as artistic director of this venue (she directs this particular production herself) are being dispensed with in due course: there’s as much fake blood here as there is in more ‘classical’ works staged at the Globe, and about as much iambic pentameter (as a percentage of the total amount of dialogue) too.

Even more than that, this is a production that plays to the gallery as much, if not more than, some of the plays by the Bard himself. The chemistry between Tristan (Dominic Marsh) and Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) is sufficiently convincing. The help, Brangian (Niall Ashdown), elicits a mixture of laughter and sympathy.

It’s Frocin (Kyle Lima) who brings the house down, however, with an obvious flair and talent for dancing and impeccable timing. Mike Shepherd’s King Mark is also worthy of mention, portraying a character that uses his monarchical powers with prudence, only occasionally acting purely on impulse.

There are some very touching moments as well in this steadily-paced production. Like an Alan Ayckbourn play, there’s laugh-out-loud humour, but the character development and dialogue combine to produce considerable poignancy at the same time. And whoever thought an ancient tale of tragedy could be successfully repositioned into a convincing comical crowd-pleaser?

Some punchlines are somewhat over-repeated, and one or two outlast their welcome. But, in the end, any show that gets a full Globe Theatre rocking to the beat of ‘Get Lucky’, made famous by house music (meaning, for the uninitiated, ‘discotheque’ or ‘nightclub’) group Daft Punk, without making it seem corny or unnecessary, has got to be doing something right. A sparkling and delightful show, it’s superficial in some ways and sublime in others. As Shakespeare put it in Hamlet, Act II Scene II: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Cornish King Mark is at war: he rules with his head not his heart. But he hasn’t counted on falling head over heels for his enemy’s sister, or expected the arrival of the enigmatic Tristan. Seen through the eyes of the ‘Unloved’, Tristan & Yseult, the most successful and beloved of all of Kneehigh’s shows, blends comedy, live music, grand passions and tender truths in an irresistible night of love.

Writers – Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy
Adaptor and Director – Emma Rice
Composer – Stu Barker
Designer – Bill Mitchell
Lighting Designer – Malcom Rippeth
Sound Designer – Simon Baker

Niall Ashdown – Brangian
Stu Barker – Musician
Omari Douglas – Love Spotter / Animator
Tom Jackson Greaves – Love Spotter / Animator
Kyle Lima – Frocin
Dominic Marsh – Tristan
Pat Moran – Musician
Justin Radford – Musician
Mike Shepherd – King Mark
Hannah Vassallo – Yseult
Elizabeth Westcott – Musician
Kirsty Woodward – Whitehands

Tuesday 13 – Saturday 24 June 2017
Globe Theatre


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