Regional Theatre Review: TRISTAN & YSEULT (Kneehigh Theatre Company at South Coast Rep)

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by Tony Frankel on February 2, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Cheeky, goofy and sassy, Tristan & Yseult at South Coast Rep affectionately mocks and contemporizes a classic love tragedy and literary legend while respecting English performing arts tradition, from music-hall and panto to Peter Sellers and Ealing Studios. This irrepressible import from Kneehigh, that brassy Cornish theater company which brought us the stage adaptation of Brief Encounter, is gut-busting, eye-popping, and enjoyable to a fault. For all the inspired clowning from the ensemble’s daffy tricksters, after two hours in this vortex of vaudeville, their Tristan & Yseult decides in the end to evoke the pathos of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by literally playing “Liebestod” from an onstage record player. It’s an attempt to balance the buffoonery with tragic love story, but Emma Rice’s adaptation—first presented in Cornwall in 2003 and extensively produced on tour since then—goes for joyful and intoxicating to the extent that the tragedy doesn’t stick. This production does indeed turn theater into a prescription painkiller, but a controlled substance can come with dulling side effects.

The cast, with Kristy Woodward center, in Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Richard Termine.

The beyond-clever setting is the “Club of the Unloved,” a 60’s-style roost with a band of itinerant musicians. Center stage in this earnest charade is a wooden circus-ring where Pythonesque zanies manipulate the ropes and pulleys that elevate the action. It’s ground zero for silliness and sentiment, spoofery and soul. Here the suspension of disbelief is quite literal: Characters dangle in the throes of passion, and a circular cockpit lifts up to allow our demure and pillbox-hatted narrator, Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), to belt a ballad above this “wooden O.”

Hannah Vassallo and Dominic Marsh in Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Richard Termine.

They’re assembled to celebrate an ancient tale within a comedy. Cautionary and salacious, the saga comes from a love triangle in medieval lore—the doomed romance between the French knight Tristan and the Irish princess Yseult. Untested in love, the maiden finds herself affianced to the formidable King Mark, who reigned over Cornwall, a realm of great prosperity in the 12th century. Mark’s southwestern British fiefdom was rescued by Tristan from conquest by Morholt, played here as a caricatured Irish thug-chieftain. But Yseult gets alienated from his affections, and the transgressor is not just anyone, it’s Tristan, the man who found Yseult for his liege lord, and who also killed her brother Morholt in battle.

The cast of Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Richard Termine.

Seduced by a too-clear love potion (quaffed from a bottle identical to one of white wine), the chemical-crossed lovers are helpless to resist a spell that only hastens the inevitable. Exposed by the desperately dutiful flunky Frocin (the hilarious triple-threat Damon Daunno) and his Polaroid camera, the lovers’ luck deserts them along with the effects of the elixir. (The tale is similar to the Arthurian legend which has Mordred intercepting Lancelot and Guinevere.) Rice’s version, written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy in mostly rhyming couplets, finds very different fates for the titular sweethearts from Wagner’s faithful version.

Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo, foreground, in Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Richard Termine.

“Born in sorrow” and destined for the short life that ensures a long legend, Dominic Marsh’s stalwart Tristan defies any stained-glass iconography as he sprawls across a hammock under a bright red sail, heading toward happiness and doom. A pawn of passion and a potion, Hannah Vassallo’s Yseult combines Carnaby Street cuteness with a gobsmacking zest for lust.

Mike Shepherd, Hannah Vassallo, Kristy Woodward and Dominic Marsh in Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Richard Termine.

Distinguished by his iambic pentameter as well as his commitment to order in his palace and his province, Mike Shepherd’s magisterial King Mark is, happily, no caricature of cuckoldry. His first night with Yseult is a tour de force of farcical heartbreak when—in a non-showy drag role—the ever-compliant maidservant Brangian (a downplayed Niall Ashdown) impersonates Yseult on the marriage bed. Given a situation that could have sunk into bad burlesque, Brangian’s post-coital bliss is as sweet as it’s sad. However, Ashdown is far more successful when he takes on double-duty as the skull-crushing warrior Morholt, Yseult’s very bad brother.

Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo in Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Richard Termine.

Everything clicks like clockwork in this modern medieval morality play—Stu Barker’s eclectic score, go-for-broke stage combat, funky dance breakouts, and manic, merry mugging. Yet Rice’s sardonic adaptation suddenly and swiftly sobers up late in the game to deliver the power of the eternal romance (we discover the true identity of Whitehands), and the results are transitory. In trying to honor a glorious Wagnerian precedent, Tristan & Yseult ends up relying on shenanigans to tell the narrative, paying more tribute to laughter than tears with Teflon storytelling.

Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo in Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Richard by Steve Tanner

Tristan & Yseult
Kneehigh Theatre Company
South Coast Rep
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
scheduled to end February 22, 2015
for tickets, call 714.708.5555 or visit

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carol Cooperman February 15, 2015 at 6:51 pm

Is the language intelligible? Will we be able to work our ways through the accents?


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