Kneehigh’s Tristan and Yseult Theatre Review –An Updated, Classic Love Story That Dazzles

Tristan (Dominic Marsh) woos Yseult (Hannah Vassallo)

(Costa Mesa, CA) January, 2015 – The legendary Celtic love story of the courageous knight Tristan and Irish princess Isolde (or Yseult) has proven to be one of the key foundations of western art and literature. Its love triangle between the two lovers and Tristan’s King Mark most likely influenced Sir Thomas Mallory’s Arthurian romance of Lancelot, Guinevere, and King Arthur, so much so that it was adopted into that literary canon. Regardless of its origins, its core themes of magic, loyalty, love and betrayal have served as paradigms for early romantic, medieval literature.


And as with any kind of classic, it has the potential of becoming a perfect target for revisionism and satire. Thus enters Kneehigh, a Cornwall-based theatre company who has adapted this legendary tale into a modernistic roller coaster of dancing, song and laughs. As this UK theatre troupe comes to South Coast Repertory with their latest work, Kneehigh’s dynamic creativity combines musical merriment with subtle poignancy. 

Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward, center) tells the story of the love triangle between King Mark (Mike Shepherd,L), Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) and Tristan (Dominic Marsh, right)

All is content at the kingdom of Cornwall. A group chorus called Loverspotters spy on the audience, take notes and learn what it is to be loved, for they point out early on they are “The Unloved,” poor players who have never experienced love in their lives. Leading them is the narrator, Whitehands (a maternal Kirsty Woodward), who tells the tragic romantic tale of Tristan (Dominic Marsh), a French warrior, and Yseult (Hannah Vassallo), an Irish princess. Right after a mini celebration led by court chief advisor Frocin (Damon Daunno), King Mark (Mike Shepherd) meets his long lost nephew Tristan, who arrives at the right moment when King Morholt of Ireland (Niall Ashdown) invades Cornwall. Courtesy of Tristan, Morholt and his army are defeated and in order to unite both countries, King Mark orders Tristan to travel to Ireland and escort Morholt’s sister Yseult back to Cornwall in order for the monarch to marry her. Unfortunately, during their journey, both Tristan and Yseult take a love potion (whether it was accidental or on purpose is still in debate), which ignites their passion for each other, setting a series of events that affects Mark, Tristan and Yseult forever.  


Artistic Director Shepherd indicated that Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” was one of the influences for the play’s hip style and creative vision. With Bill Mitchell’s retro minimalist two-level set that utilizes metal scaffolding, a jazz lounge, a martini bar and a raised circular stage that includes pulleys and simple trapezes, Malcolm Rippeth’s subdued reddish lighting, and Stu Barker jazzy music, the feeling is more in line with the witty, dark crime comedies of Guy Ritchie, the snazzy, flamboyant flair of Baz Luhrman films and a stylistic look straight from the artwork of Josh Agle, aka Shag. This modern vision, which contrasts with the play’s poetics (nice job by writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy), flows beautifully together, adding more thematic layers to the story.  

The wedding party begins



It is evident that all cast members are having a blast on this stage, during both the comedic and tragic moments. Marsh’s magnetic presence as a leading man is matched by his seductive charm and his tormented conflict when it comes to betraying his patron. Vassallo’s Yseult is a passionate Irish firebrand whose fervor for revenge slowly brews and changes into love for the young knight. Both of their chemistries heat up the stage without it being too explicit. Completing the love triangle, Sheperd’s Mark is perhaps the most tragic figure of the three. He interlaces regality and power, but never drifts into arrogance or hubris. When he is betrayed by the couple, his hurt is evident in his pained face and his defeated posture.


Balancing the dramatic performances are Daunno’s Frocin and Ashdown’s duo performance of Morholt and the female character of Brangian, Yseult’s chambermaid.  The comedic timing of both artists is masterful and a delight to watch, especially when they break the fourth wall, speak to the audience for participation, and use improvisation to enhance key scenes in the play. Daunno’s Frocin is a hilarious toady of a dandy, whose jazz dance movements is reminiscent of Cab Calloway.

Tristan (Dominic Marsh) escapes with Yseult (Hannah Vassallo)

Ashdown brings the house down as the charmingly pompous Morholt while adding sympathy during his tender scenes with Yseult. When he becomes Brangian, dressed simply in a dress and a scarf, his talent as a comedic actor really shows, displaying elements of Monty Python Flying Circus. But what is fascinating is how Ashdown portrays Brangian after she is ordered by Yseult to take her place and fool King Mark into thinking he is making love with his bride during their romantic honeymoon evening, thereby maintaining the deception of the affair with Tristan. After the honeymoon, Ashdown becomes gray with guilt, sorrow and anger at the thought of giving up her chastity for naught and being used by her dearest friend. Not many actors can realistically show the vulnerability of a character that is of the opposite sex and Ashdown brings a heartbreaking performance. Sadly, this particular scene is almost ruined when the production shows both Ashdown and Shepherd kissing and groping each other during their “night of romance.” No matter how far upstage they were, this action between the two actors was totally gratuitous and unnecessary; it was used more for shock value than adding to the atmosphere of sensuality, which is a shame and is perhaps the only fault in the production.


But the scene stealers throughout the entire show are the actors performing as the chorus-like Lovespotters and musicians. Dressed in sneakers, jeans, rain slickers, hoodies and sunglasses, this band of comedic masters is reminiscent of Gru’s minions from Pixar’sDespicable Me.” They dance, sing and perform a variety of tasks that add to the show’s magic and imaginative creativity. Besides Ashdown and Daunno, who steps in occasionally as the Loverspotters, the main core group includes Robert Luckay, Tom Jackson Greaves, Stu Marker, Lizzy Westcott, Justin Lee Radford, Pat Moran, and James Gow.


Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult is the second outside theatre company this season to bring their show to SCR; the first being the season opener of The Tempest performed by the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. Both are examples of the high quality that SCR produces in Southern California and it will be interesting in future seasons what other innovative theatre companies will bring to the 51-year-old Orange County stage.


Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, journalist and voice over artist.

Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult runs from January 23-February 22, 2013

South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage

655 Town Center Drive

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

Photos by Richard Termine

Top of Page
Join Splash Magazines

Feature Article

Tempflow™ and Tempur-Pedic® Reviews - What 35 Hours of Research Uncovered

Want Your Business to Male a Splash
<!-- #wrapper -->