The Theatreguide.London Review
[The 2017 production had a different cast]
I have a special fondness for playwrights, directors and actors who take big gambles, making risky choices that could so easily backfire or fall flat. If they fail, you still have to hold some grudging admiration for their ambition. But if they succeed, you get not only the pleasure of the final product but the awe-filled experience of watching tightrope walkers. The awareness of how close they come to falling makes their success all the more exciting..
This production from Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre, restaged for a guest run at the National Theatre, is an extraordinary collection of conceptual and directorial gambles, audacious risk-takings every one of which succeeds, making for an always entertaining and ultimately thrilling theatrical experience.
The medieval tale of romance and betrayal, almost identical to the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot story (Scholars can still debate over which came first), has the French knight fetching the Cornish King Mark's Irish bride but falling for her himself, leading to tragedy for all three.
Kneehigh daringly retell it in a mode that is part circus, part Christmas panto, part film noir, creating ironic distancing that constantly jokes around the edges of the tale while - and this is remarkable - still respecting it, allowing things to go along semi-comically and still build to a shattering climax.
Director-adaptor Emma Rice, working from a script by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, sets the action on and around a circular platform that suggests a circus ring, and indeed Tristan and Yseult fall in love in a drunken aerial ballet, while later the treacherous Mordred figure spies while hanging above them.
Costumes and general design are roughly 1950s, with Mark and his knights as petty gangsters who converse in obscene rhymed couplets like escapees from a Steven Berkoff play. And the whole is told and surrounded by a chorus of anorak-wearing wallies identified as the Club of the Unloved, watching enviously the few who are blessed and cursed with the capacity for passion.
Distancing and comic effects abound. A narrator figure played by Amanda Lawrence keeps up a running ironic commentary something like that of the narrator in Blood Brothers. The chorus of losers bustle about the edges of the action. The fourth wall is repeatedly broken to acknowledge and involve the audience.
Yseult's maid is played by a man (Craig Johnson) as a panto dame - which, in one of the first striking shifts in tone, does not keep the character from becoming very real and touching when she has one brief hint of her mistress's passion.
And yet we never lose sight of the central story or awareness of the real emotions involved. The onstage appearance of a seedy dance band may seem a joke, but a sensuous tango between Tristan and Yseult expresses their passion perfectly, just as the wild abandon of a rock-n-roll dance at the wedding of Mark and Yseult both captures the innocence of the moment and suggests the frantic attempt to maintain the illusion that all is well.
All three central performances are moving and convincing - Eva Magyar as an Yseult who sincerely admires and respects her husband but cannot resist her passions, Tristan Sturrock as the lover completely absorbed by his obsession, and Mike Shepherd as the thug-king for whom life must be simple to be comprehended.
The power of the work doesn't come from the individual pieces, or even the way they fit together, but from the audacity of putting them together. At every moment you are aware that what you are watching shouldn't be working - that the jumble of modes and styles should be clashing horribly, instead of serving each other so beautifully - and you are caught up in the wonder of pure theatrical magic.
Nowhere is that more effective - to the point of being overpowering - than at the end, when the narrator takes a more active role in events, a piece of information that has carefully been withheld from us is revealed and changes the meaning and tone of everything, and things build to a climax so audacious and so risky that even while it's happening you can't quite believe they're going to pull it off.*
And they do, in a coup de theatre that will leave you breathless, the extraordinary topper to an evening of extraordinary inventiveness.
*Later footnote - it's the Wagner music at full blast.
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Review - Tristan and Yseult - Kneehigh at National 2005