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TRISTAN & YSEULT Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1




This is a famously significant piece of theatre: created in 2003 in a Cornish field , it was one of the first successes of Emma Rice’s Kneehigh, precursor of wild successes like Brief Encounter, Rebecca and The Wild Bride. Her idiosyncratic, joyful style of course led her to her short-lived tenure in charge of the Globe. But this adaptation was the genesis of it all: its larky, irreverent, vaudevillian style at the time revolutionary. It ran at the NT Cottesloe, toured two hemispheres, and now returns re-cast , but with the same spirit and the most of the original Bill Mitchell design and rope-hauling aerialism. Here in the Globe – currently still in the Emma Rice it’s-a-gig mode, with amplification and fancy lights – the tempo is turned up more than Cottesloe audiences remember. To the extent, indeed, that sometimes the broad jokes, asides , urgings of the groundlings and bursts of pop singalong (“Up all night to get lucky”) could make a newcomer feel a bit as if he had wandered into Butlins.


Especially since the story, or the core of it, is the mythic medieval-Arthurian tragedy of Tristan – born in sorrow to a broken heart – and his love for King Mark of Cornwall’s bride Yseult. You do get a couple of bursts of Wagner’s Liebestod – one at the start, one at the finale – but in between there are comedy kick-fights and goolie-grabbing, and a musically unWagnerian diversity from Nick Cave to tango. As to the spoken text – by Anna Maria Murphy and Carl Grose – some of it is strikingly poetic, even profound; some is not. King Mark – Mike Shepherd, one of the few accorded some dark dignity – has loose iambics which often work; Kirsty Woodward, narrating from the point of view of Tristan’s eventual wife, delivers dry sharp storytelling in strict 1950’s ladieswear; only occasionally is there a line truly bathetic, like Kyle Lima as the Iago-ish betrayer Frocin lamenting “I’ve been nothing but your loyal servant, my King / Don’t say Ive ruined everything”… Luckily, Lima’s physical brilliance and bonkers fight-dancing carries him along for most of the evening.



But actually the whole shebang carries you along: as Yseult Hannah Vassallo is light, touching and lovely, and Dominic Marsh a goodly glamorous Tristan. THe play is short (two hours five including the interval), vigorous, and above all rather interestingly framed. For Rice’s perception is that while lovers are interesting, most of us have had periods, or indeed lives, in “The Club of the Unloved”, who can only look on. They are represented here by a chorus of anoraked, bespectacled, balaclava-wearing figures with birders’ binoculars (a bit unfair, surely some anoraks have lovers too?).




This chorus , often musicians as well, can test the patience slightly with their miming, larking and asides; sometimes, as can happen in a Rice production, there is an uneasy sense that every flash of sincere emotion must be sent up as fast as possible. Still, there are moments she does not undermine. Niall Ashdown as the maid Brangian is very funny indeed in his cross-dressed, anxious bridal moment, yet genuinely poignant in its aftermath. And as the sky darkens over London and the reality of love, betrayal, separation and death swells before us, the sad cry of Iseult White-hands, on behalf of all the unglamorous unloved, suddenly grows real power.



It is – the director says – possibly its last outing, and probably one of its noisiest. But because of its history and the theatrical style is pioneered and spread,  it is a show for anyone interested in theatre to see. And for the young hilarious groundlings and many singing and cheering from the galleries, clearly just pure pleasure.



box office 020 7902 1400 to 25 July
rating three  3 Meece Rating


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