Bay Area Theater Preview: TRISTAN & YSEULT (Kneehigh Theatre Company at Berkeley Rep)

by Tony Frankel on November 20, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


I wonder if Bay Area residents know how ridiculously lucky they are to have Berkeley Rep, a regional theater so prestigious that Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre is bringing Tristan & Yseult, their latest hit show from the UK, to the Rep’s Roda Theatre.  This ancient tale of forbidden desires, broken hearts, and the agony of choosing one human being over another officially opens Tuesday night and runs through Jan. 6, 2014.

For anyone who saw Kneehigh’s ingenious and theatrically arresting Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter at A.C.T. or the shocking and ravishing The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep (so successful that a command engagement occurred earlier this year), you will no doubt rush to get tickets.  For those unlucky souls who have never seen the work Andrew Durand (Tristan) and Patrycja Kujawska (Yseult) star as ill-fated lovers in the West Coast premiere of Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult.of this estimable company, let me tell you that these magical theater-makers singlehandedly restored my faith in both theatrical imagination and storytelling.

Within the manifesto of Kneehigh—a world-class avant-garde theater company from Cornwall—is a simple but mighty statement: “Kneehigh tells stories.”  By remaining on the fringe of theater as a business, this magnificently inventive, multi-talented, multi-cultural team of artists brings to the theater refreshing and persuasive theatrical storytelling.  How?  They start with a story and then work as a collective, one which uses improvisation, physical poetry, and music to discover the ingredients which will best serve the story.  Kneehigh is an inspirational reminder that it is not just the story but the way in which it is told which will move, touch and arouse an audience.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that all of the actors move well, sing, act up a storm and play instruments.  The story at hand centers on a love triangle between warrior Tristan; his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall; and the beautiful Yseult.

Adapter/director Emma Rice, set designer Bill Mitchell, lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, writer Carl Grose and composer Stu Barker have reunited to create what UK critics are calling must-see theatre; I have witnessed their previous work, and Andrew Durand plays Tristan in the West Coast premiere of Tristan & Yseult, Kneehigh’s best-loved and most critically acclaimed can rest assured that the way Kneehigh passionately blends gorgeous music and ingenious staging will remain with you long after you see their productions.

The London Guardian had this to say about Tristan & Yseult, which stars Carly Bawden, Gareth Charlton, Andrew Durand, Craig Johnson, Giles King, Patrycja Kujawska, Róbert Lučkay, and Mike Shepherd: “Halfway through Kneehigh’s [wonderful] show, the band was playing, balloons were flying, hearts and minds were connecting and I suddenly realized how rare it is to have this much fun in the theatre. This evening is like a great gulp of refreshing sea air. It made me want to gurgle with delight…The production is thrillingly playful in every respect. It is childlike but never childish, full of music from a terrific band and it echoes with hoots of laughter and the whispered memory of despair. It embraces you so warmly that you feel as if you have been physically hugged. I loved it with a passion.”

Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s artistic director refers to this show as a “modern opera full of pageantry and spectacle replete with beautiful singing and music.” Rice adds, “In many ways, Tristan & Yseult is the show of my life. Creatively free and emotionally fierce, the show tramples roughshod over convention and cliché. I am hugely proud of the work, but my passion is not only about pride. This show is deeply personal, a hall of mirrors looking down the corridors of my life.”

Andrew Durand (Tristan) and Patrycja Kujawska (Yseult) perform the title roles in the West Coast premiere of Kneehigh’s Tristan & by Steve Tanner

Tristan & Yseult
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre
2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck
plays through January 6, 2014
for tickets, call 510 647–2949
or visit

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