Tristan and Yseult, Shakespeare’s Globe

By guest critic Maeve Campbell

The audience enter a Globe theatre transformed into ‘The Club of the Unloved’, populated by a chorus of anorak wearing, bird-watching members. We are serenaded by a virtuosic Roy Orbison cover, foreshadowing the production’s impeccable soundtrack, performed by a slick live band. What follows is a show that is silly, scrappy and homemade looking, and at the same time unfeasibly magical. 

Based on a medieval folk tale, The Cornish King Mark has intentions to marry Yseult, sister of his defeated Irish enemy. He sends his loyal French knight Tristan to kidnap her. But he’s sexy and she’s sexy, and it’s love at first sip of a magical potion. Here ensues a messy love triangle and an anguished discovery of betrayal. 

The production’s standout scene is the lovers’ consumption of the potion. Drunken bawdiness turns to animalistic sexuality in true kneehighesque fashion. The company have become synonymous with a style of storytelling involving circus and ariel acrobatic techniques, and here conjure the elevating and confusing sensation of falling in love, or even lust, for the first time. 

Further clownish dance and fight routines punctuate the show, performed by a cast who seem to be having the most fun. The droll narrator Ms Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), rakish Tristan (Dominic Marsh), and the formidable King Mark (Mike Shepherd) all shine. However it is Niall Ashdown who steals every scene as Yseult’s maid Brangian. Ashdown matches slapstick humour, providing much of the production’s comic relief, with sincere heartbreak played beautifully subtly. 

The audience are incredibly receptive. An obscure Nick Cave song, ‘Sweetheart Come’, played for it’s full five minutes, prompts a surprisingly raucous reaction. It seems that many of the audience are returning fans; the production has been performed variously around the world since 2003. In reviving this show, director Emma Rice demonstrates her imaginative genius as she departs the Globe as Artistic Director at the end of this, only her second, season. And the outdoor space seems tailor-made for her vision. The glorious weather of the summer evening heightens the fizzy, heady comedy of the first half. By the time dusk sets in the mood of the piece is darker, moodier, creating an atmosphere of deceit that illustrates the pain of fading love. 

Kneehigh’s Tristan and Yseult deserves this revival, as a show that manages to be both uplifting and heart breaking in equal measure. It is energetic and artfully messy, and that makes it’s sentiment feel authentic. It is no wonder it has garnered such an enthusiastic fandom.

Tristan and Yseult runs through 24 June.

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