Bay Area Theater Review: TRISTAN & YSEULT (Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

by Stacy Trevenon on November 30, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Monty Python meets Shakespeare meets Cirque du Soleil in Tristan & Yseult at Berkeley Rep. A universal love story with roots in classic times at the storied Cornish countryside is bestowed wry English humor and a four-piece band that offer music spanning from spirited rock to haunting Celtic airs. Riveting acting, devil-may-care physicality and a whiff of Theatre of the Absurd all contribute to this fully satisfying production—a daringly theatrical quilt. It’s risky when the doors to theatrical Andrew Durand (Tristan) and Patrycja Kujawska (Yseult) star as ill-fated lovers in the West Coast premiere of Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult.potential swing open wide and creative interpretation gets free rein. That can be a recipe for disaster; but here, cast and director embrace the challenge with full commitment and their risks pay off more than handsomely.

Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre, the company behind such hits as The Wild Bride and Brief Encounter, brings the West Coast premiere of Tristan & Yseult to California, whose coastlines are certainly less dramatic than those of Cornwall, a place where lore has it that heroes such as Tristan lived and loved. Adapter/director Emma Rice makes full and gleeful use of every tool at her disposal as she reunites with set designer Bill Mitchell, lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, composer Stu Barke and writer Carl Grose (with Anna Maria Murphy). Rice draws from the considerable talent of her cast to employ not only beautiful acting, singing, and dancing but aerial acrobatics and plentiful dabs of dry, cheeky humor. Aided by the contemporary-flavored music, Rice plumbs the mists of time for a love story that becomes fresh and relevant for modern audiences.

Carly Bawden in Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult at Berkeley Rep.The timeless tale of a love triangle plays out with themes applicable to all who have loved and lost, balanced by well-placed dashes of comicality which actually feed the tragic tale and the unforgettable ending. Kneehigh founder Mike Shepherd is Mark, a Cornish King who is battling an Irish invasion led by Morholt, whose sister is Yseult; Shepard is regal, commanding and ultimately sympathetic as a man who lets his head rule his heart. Andrew Durand plays the romantic hero, Tristan, the wandering French knight who pledges fidelity to King Mark. His panache and poise create a passionate warrior, and Durand skillfully rockets palpable emotion to viewers like me several rows back. The woe in this Camelot-era story is set off when Mark sends Tristan to bring him Yseult for his bride. Patrycja Kujawska turns in a solid rendering of a shrewd and capable Yseult, displaying striking talents as both a violinist and a haunting singer of traditional song. As with the other players, her dynamic physicality does not negate her intense intimacy.

The cast of Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult at Berkeley Rep.The multi-dimensional and expressive Giles King plays Frocin, the nasty, droll and sycophantic attendant to King Mark. Carly Bawden is a narrative presence in a pleasing and puckishly funny Jackie Kennedy-esque yellow dress, hat and the white gloves (the latter giving her the name of Whitehands). She eventually becomes part of this tale, not set in the Cornish countryside but a cabaret of sorts where Bawden offers amazing renderings of modern songs.

Andrew Durand plays Tristan in the West Coast premiere of Tristan & Yseult, Kneehigh’s best-loved and most critically acclaimed show.Mitchell’s design puts no brakes on his creative juices. His sparse set introduces a tone of disconnection in a jazzy Club of the Unloved, which blends with an industrial air into an acrobat’s playground. There’s an elevated ramp, a high platform for the band, a handy mattress for the actors to tumble upon and central pole with block-and-tackle rigging which did multiple duty as a focal point and foundation for some of the exciting acrobatics. It’s amazing how individual moments grab our attention as there is almost too much to take in at once. The overall impact of the production is borderline overwhelming, but as the story emerges I found myself eager to see how the next details would be interpreted and delivered.

The crisp fight choreography punctuates the moments and adds to the story’s classic dramatic tension; there is a real sense of danger when tightly staged battle scenes meet with fire and sharp daggers.

The performers pack multiple threats – they are actors, vocalists, acrobats, dancers, instrumentalists. They metamorphose from principal roles to Greek chorus-like ensemble, occasionally joining music director Ian Ross’s band as Andrew Durand is the warrior Tristan in the West Coast premiere of Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult.musicians. With guitar, drums, bass, violin, accordion, woodwind, voice and more, they create a colorful aural landscape perfectly in tune with the tapestry that is this production.

Ultimately it’s a roller-coaster ride through the standbys and tricks of successful theater, borne along by a timeless love story and visual and sonic elements that do not let the viewer go. I found it funny, exhilarating, and very engrossing as it inspired appreciation of impeccably-done theater, the type of which should be a template for those companies afraid to take risks.

photos by Steve Tanner

Tristan & Yseult
Kneehigh Theatre
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre
2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck
scheduled to end on January 6, 2014
EXTENDED to January 18, 2014
for tickets, call 510 647–2949 or visit

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