Tristan and Yseult review: playful ingenuity in a story of love

Kneehigh’s shipshape, fleet production comes closer to home at the Galway International Arts Festival

Kneehigh Theatre presents Tristan and Yseult  as part of the 40th Galway International Arts Festival . Photograph:  Steve Tanner

Kneehigh Theatre presents Tristan and Yseult as part of the 40th Galway International Arts Festival . Photograph: Steve Tanner


 Town Hall Theatre, Galway         


How do you explain love to someone who has never known it? It’s not an entirely academic question in the prelude to Kneehigh’s Tristan and Yseult, for which a small herd of anorak-wearing eccentrics canvass the audience for insights. What colour do you associate with love? Which number? What are the top three attributes of your romantic partner? These are the Love Spotters, who approach passions as they might trains or birds, with all of the detail and none of the insights.

Members of the Club of the Unloved, where a resident band delivers cheesy love songs with full heart, they have been given the telling of one of the most passionate and tragic love stories of all time, in this fleet version by Anna Maria Murphy and Carl Grose. Faithful to the Cornish legend, but winningly informal in delivery, its take on romance – like its take on geography and history – may strike you differently according to personal proximity. When the dour King Mark (Mike Shepard) briefly loses ground to the roguish Irish invader Morholt, for instance, who colonises Cornwall with contemporary gags and some step dancing, a Galway audience might be warmer to the idea of Irish imperialism.

English vision

Director Emma Rice’s production has a more charmingly (and knowingly) English vision, though, with a cheeky fascination for other nations, a deep fondness for British eccentricity, and an inexhaustible amusement for cross dressing. That all comes together when Niall Ashdown’s spryly comic maid Brangian, pries an intoxicated Yseult (Hanna Vassallo) away from an amorous Tristan (Dominic Marsh) with the instruction that she behave like a proper Irish woman, and he behave like not such a proper Frenchman.

With such élan, on a stage inspired by the rigging of a ship’s mast, it hoists the sails and breezes past obstacles that might otherwise capsize a modern production. Yseult, you realise, is really a spoil of war, a trophy taken without her consent; and that she reciprocates Mark’s affections is just a bonus. But the fate of these characters is out of their hands – every time Wagner’s sweeping overture flares from a record player, among some fresher live classics, the cast seemed awed by it, this destiny already scored.

It says something about the production’s delicate poise that Ashdown, the most comic persona, should also convey its most poignant moment, revealing the exquisite pain behind a once goofy gesture, or that Kirsty Woodward as Whitehands, the severe runner-up in Tristan’s affections, should narrate the tale in something like Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe. (Poor Jackie.)

It is all told with such playful ingenuity, such music, such bright good will and such feeling, that you overlook any minor stumbles, like the suspicion that Yseult’s accent has been coached by Saoirse Ronan through a thick wall. There’s a lesson there that the Love Spotters might appreciate. The things we do for love.

Until Saturday, July 22nd