NOTE: The following review dates from April 2005 and this production's run at the National Theatre. For current cast and venue information, see performance listings.
I was slow to surrender to the undoubted charms of Tristan and Yseult, but then I always fear being bludgeoned into enjoyment.
Even the programme comes with a white balloon (you’ll be asked to blow it up to celebrate a royal wedding later in the proceedings - "we all love a Royal Wedding, don't we?") and a miniature packet of Love Hearts. Then, when you enter the Cottesloe, a band called Martin and the Misfits is already crooning on stage, while an anorak-clad troupe of actors are scanning the auditorium with binoculars and keep writing down notes (it turns out that they’re ‘love spotters’ – an army of the unloved yearning for something they’ll never know).
I have to confess that my warning radar was already starting to kick in: this could get strenuous very quickly, I thought to myself. And haven’t we been here before? Using a crude theatre troupe to tell an epic story that might just be beyond their reach and ambition smacked of the work of the National Theatre of Brent, whose work itself was once seen on this same National Theatre of Great Britain stage.
But as I was gradually drawn into this re-telling of a classic folk tale, I was also forcibly and favourably reminded of one more past National Theatre show: Bill Bryden’s magical staging of The Mysteries, again on this same stage, that brought a similar folk storytelling vigour to reinvigorate a familiar story. Perhaps my jaded theatrical palette has just seen too much, but preconceptions and one’s past experiences are obviously better left at the door.
For this collaboration between the National and Kneehigh Theatre – reviving a production that Kneehigh originally staged at a castle in their native Cornwall and an abbey in Nottinghamshire two summers ago, then again last year at Cornwall’s glorious outdoor Minack Theatre and Eden Project – has been beautifully re-made for an intimate indoor space by director/adaptor Emma Rice.
Maybe some of the frequent use of a broad, knockabout physical theatre language rather than a verbal one is still intended for a larger outdoor arena, in which the audience’s attention has to be harnessed against competing distractions.
But at the same time the core of it – as it tells of the competing attractions of the heart, when the Cornish King Mark (Mike Shepherd) falls in love with his vanquished enemy’s sister Yseult (Eva Magyar) and she in turn falls in love with the knight Tristan (Tristan Sturrock) who killed her brother – has a yearning simplicity to touch all hearts. The elderly man behind me was in tears.
Splendidly complemented by the haunting and resonant music of Stu Barker (and with some of the quirkiest dancing on a London stage), there’s a quietly affecting end to this busily rendered spectacle.