Tristan & Yseult – Review

Watching Emma Rice’s brilliantly conceived romantic tragedy, Tristan & Yseult, which is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe this week, it is blindingly obvious why the powers-that-be hired her to be artistic director of the venue and, sadly, why it has also been her downfall.

This wonderfully quirky, charming and innovative production, which I caught on Friday night, is a sheer delight.

The sold-out audience, including me, spent the entire performance laughing out loud or with silly, cheesy grins on our faces and, at the denouement, collectively gasped at a reveal and mourned at its finale (that’s not a plot spoiler as the ending also opens the show).

Rice first adapted and directed Tristan & Yseult in 2003 when she was just starting out as artistic director of Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre.

And it was her visionary, experimental and unorthodox creative genius which, one assumes, first attracted the board at The Globe when they were looking for Dominic Dromgoole’s successor.

Alas, it has also been her undoing with the theatre’s executive now admitting that her unconventional style didn’t fit The Globe’s remit.

Watching the audience’s reaction on Friday I can’t help feeling that they are making a huge mistake. The likes of Tristan & Yseult is exactly what The Globe needs to sit alongside its productions of Shakespeare.

This revival, which is at The Globe until this Saturday before moving on to North Wales, is fresh, gloriously madcap, and unashamedly romantic. It is, without doubt, the highlight of Emma’s Summer Of Love season, her last at The Bankside venue.

Tristan & Yseult opens with the audience being serenaded by a group of, what can only be described as anoraks.

As theatre-goers sipped Pimms in the balmy summer heat they, poor sods, are dressed in nylon cagoules, woollen balaclavas, nerdy spectacles and binoculars.

Suffice to say you should give them a wide berth, and probably report them to the police, if you see them lurking in bushes on Hampstead Heath.

These are the “Unloved” (it’s clear to see why). “We are the love spotters,” they chorus, binoculars in hands. They received so much sympathy from my cheery crowd, who were delirious with the heat, that I’m sure they’d all have been snapped up for a date.

There unfolds a story of forbidden love, passion and betrayal, between French-speaking and noble, Tristan, who serves Cornwall’s King Mark, and Irish princess, Yseult, who is promised to Mark as the spoils of battle.

The story is narrated by a mysterious woman who is described in the programme as Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward).

Dressed Jackie Kennedy-style, a stunning lemon dress and jacket, pillbox hat and, yes, little white gloves, she spends almost the entire performance on stage and is, we learn, a fully paid up member of The Club of the Unloved.

King Mark (Mike Shepherd looking very gangster-like in his dark shades and sombre suit) has killed Irish king, Morholt (a splendidly eccentric, if brief, crowd-pleasing turn from Niall Ashdown) and he calls on Tristan to travel to Ireland and return with the defeated king’s beautiful young sister.

But on the voyage the hot-headed pair experiment with a love potion – and a bottle of booze – in a giddy scene that is cleverly played out, and the couple lose all their inhibitions.

Surprisingly Yseult, played by the beguiling Hannah Vassallo, finds herself also captivated by the older king, and is torn between two lovers, while Tristan (Dominic Marsh) battles with his conscience at betraying his lord.

Throughout the production there is some gymnastic physical comedy from both the love-spotters and the principal cast, plus an off-beat selection of music that ranges from Pharrell Williams to Wagner.

Ashdown, so scene-stealing as Morholt, later excels as Yseult’s loveless and forlorn maid, Brangian, bringing a real vitality and humour to the part that is truly infectious. His quips and asides have the audience laughing throughout.

This story of love and loss is so artfully constructed that it is impossible not to be enchanted. It is breathtaking, vibrant, skilfully acted by the entire ensemble, and magnificently presented by Emma Rice and her writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy.

Catch it while you can. At The Globe until Saturday.

Remaining 2017 tour dates

June 27 – July 1, Theatr Clwyd, N Wales
July 4 – 15, Bristol Old Vic
July 18 – 22, Galway International Arts Festival.

Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult from WeAreKneehigh on Vimeo.

Review Rating
  • Tristan & Yseult


Director Emma Rice displays her trademark flare & originality in this revival of Kneehigh’s vibrant, quirky story of love & betrayal, the enchanting, unashamedly romantic, Tristan & Yseult.

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