An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 18, 2014

Tristan & Yseult, dir. Emma Rice

Tristan & Yseult Revisited

The West Coast American premiere of Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Tristan & Yseult for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a review of the January 5, 2014 evening performance.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University (

The story of Tristan and Yseult (both names, especially hers, have variant spellings) is the great love story of the western Middle Ages, and it has resonated since the Middle Ages in any number of genres.  Joan Tasker Grimbert’s Tristan and Isolde, A Casebook (1995; rpt. 2002) remains the indispensable source for studying the legend in its multiple retellings.  But, briefly, the story of an early pair of star-crossed lovers, which preceded by centuries that of Romeo and Juliet, found a literary home in the works of writers as diverse as the two Anglo-Norman writers Béroul and Thomas d’Angleterre, Eilhart von Oberge, Gottfried von Strassburg, Friar Róbert (who wrote in Old Norse), Sir Thomas, Malory, Tennyson, Swinburne, and Updike, as well as an equally rich home on canvas when, in the mid-nineteenth century, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Morris and Burne Jones eagerly took to the story as the subject of their work.   Film embraced the legend from at least as early as 1909, and, of course, Wagner coined the term Liebestod to describe the fateful ending of the eponymous heroes in the final aria of his 1859 opera Tristan und Isolde.

Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Tristan & Yseult at the Berkeley Rep is a distinctly Aristotelian production.  No, not the Aristotle of The Poetics who defined tragedy and spoke of the unities all stage plays should have.  Rather, the Aristotle of The Metaphysics who wrote of certain works of art in which the totality is not, “as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts” (or, perhaps more familiarly, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts).  Kneehigh’s production of Tristan & Yseult is definitely a play whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Kneehigh’s approach to the legend is a mix of the comic and the tragic, of stage play and stage musical.  Added to the legend here is a chorus of the unloved (the Love Spotters)—costumed not unlike a bunch of modern-day geeky birdwatchers—indeed, all the actors wear modern dress.  Upper house right is home to a musical combo, whose chanteuse, Whitehands (Carly Bawden),  functions as magistra ludi for the whole production, while also filling the role of the legend’s second Yseult (she of the white hands).  When first conceived as a stage project (Emma Rice adapts and directs from a script by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy), the play was envisioned as a site-specific outdoor production at Rufford in Nottinghamshire and at Restormel Castle in Cornwall.  London’s National Theatre then picked up the original production and moved it indoors, and sent it on tour nationally and internationally.  Now, some ten years after the original production, it has come to Berkeley for its American West Coast premiere. I

In Kneehigh’s view, the legend retains its power because of the endless series of loveless worlds into which it has been adapted.  To suggest such continuing universal relevance and resonance, in this production Tristan (Andrew Durand) first speaks in French; Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska) first sings in Hungarian; Giles King’s Frocin’s blind devotion to King Mark (Mike Shepherd) is more than tinged with the homoerotic; and the same actor (Craig Johnson) plays the roles of both Morholt and Brangian. If in medieval Cornwall, the love of Tristan and Yseult dare not speak its name, in present day California, fresh from a successful fight for same-sex marriage and in the midst of a continuing debate over additional rights for the transgendered, too many loves have been constructed as unnamable.

The timelessness of the legend is further underscored by the modern set and costumes, by  the musical score which blends the Prelude to Wagner’s opera and “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana with some playfully effective variations on songs by Willie Nelson and Roy Orbison, and by Andrew Durand’s Tristan with his torso tattoo of an outline of the borders of the state of Georgia underneath which are written the words “on my mind.”   Just as for Ray Charles, so too for Tristan:

Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you.

I must admit that, at first, I couldn’t decide whether the tattoo was permanent or part of Durand’s make-up and costume, but in the final analysis it makes no difference.  That the tattoo is integral to the production, and to Kneehigh’s approach to retelling the legend, is clear since it is featured prominently on the program cover and on advertisements for the production.

Even before the production begins, the Love Spotters interact with the audience moving between the house and the stage, taking notes, searching with binoculars, and distributing heart-shaped bits of paper.  To the accompaniment of Wagner’s Prelude, they explain how, for them, “Love is at arm’s length.”  They are soon joined by Whitehands who welcomes the audience to the Club of the Unloved, whose members stand “on the sidelines” as they tell a love story of “blood and fire,” a story they (and we in the audience) are all in, “all of us.”  As the dying Tristan appears crying “Noir ou blanc?” Whitehands notes:

“He need not fear entry into our club, for he has been loved enough to save a thousand loveless souls.  But this is the end: and you cannot have an end without a beginning.”

The audience, later inflating the white balloons distributed to them with their programs, will further become participants in the production when they join with the Love Spotters to celebrate the marriage of Mark and Yseult.

King Mark then enters with the ever-oleaginous Frocin at his side, as both describe the Cornish-centric loveless world in which they live—“the best kings rule not with their hearts, but with their brains.”  Indeed, war, not love, is in the air, as the Irish King Morholt threatens invasion, and Tristan arrives at court, his very birth seemingly a warning against love:

“Je suis né en tristesse, par pitié,
Contre tout conseil ma mère a suivi son coeur.” 

Morholt’s entrance through the audience with a band of thugs in effect puts the audience under lockdown, and leads to a confrontation first with Mark and then with Tristan –“If there’s anyone I hate more than the Cornish, it’s the French.”  While Mark and Frocin quickly capitulate, Tristan challenges Morholt and is stabbed in the side, but not before driving his knife through Morholt’s eye.  The suddenly courageous Mark boasts that he will now he will marry Yseult not out of love, but out of revenge for Morholt’s numerous past transgressions—

“For every life you stole every village you burned, every unjust step you took on this soil.” 

—and the still bleeding Tristan is quickly dispatched to Ireland to retrieve Mark’s bride.

The events that take place in Ireland are familiar enough—Yseult unknowingly heals Morholt’s murderer, Tristan, and both fall in love with each other after they (here willingly) drink a love potion—but the casting of the same actor who has just played Morholt as Yseult’s faithful maid, Brangian, is as disconcerting as it is in keeping with Kneehigh’s reinterpretation of the legend.  If the legend is ultimately the celebration of a love so pure, so unfailing, so timeless, and, therefore, so rare, how better than the casting of a frumpy male Brangian to emphasize that point?  When on the wedding night, Brangian must substitute herself for the now no longer virginal Yseult and then in the morning slip out unnoticed from under Mark as the sullied Yseult takes her place, it is with Brangian that we are meant to sympathize and identify, for we and our fellow Love Spotters, like her, yearn more than anything else to be loved:

“I shook like a leaf.
He whispered, ‘Be calm, sweet one’—
But of course I could not speak.

He inhaled the scent of the flesh
As if he wanted to remember it.
And then . . . then I felt the weight of him,
Oh Lord!
My knees quaked, my hands trembled,
My stomach turned somersaults. . . .

But last night it was me who was beloved.”

Of course, we know all too well, that in the world of Tristan and Yseult love is doomed to fail.  Mark will not in the end be deceived—Frocin makes sure of that.  And here Frocin is more the stereotypical mean-spirited dwarf of medieval legend.  His devotion to Mark is not just that of an overly dutiful servant to his master.  Frocin’s obsession with exposing Tristan and Yseult’s affair to Mark seems rooted as much in jealousy as it is in loyalty—jealousy because he is unloved, and jealousy because the object of his affection seems to be Mark.  While Mark here may, despite Frocin’s machinations, waver in his desire for revenge, this somewhat sympathetic portrait of Mark would not be the first recent one.  Rufus Sewell’s Mark in Kevin Reynold’s 2006 film Tristan + Isolde breaks with tradition in being a sympathetic, if not wronged, figure.

            Tristan is finally, as in the legend, deceived by Whitehands:

“You want to know?
You really want to know if your precious Yseult is coming? . . .
Black. The sail is black.”

and both Tristan and Yseult die.  But the play’s coda is delivered by an unusually pensive Mark (again in Kneehigh’s version there are interesting shades to his character):

“Where does all the wasted love go?”

—as Tristan and Yseult join the Love Spotters—

“It is hard to keep things white:
Dirt loves it, blood loves it, sin loves it.
If one were baptised in black,
It would not show the dirt picked up along the way.”

In a world (both on and off stage) so lacking in love, where indeed does all the wasted love go?

Cornwall has long been that forgotten fifth part of Britain.  Yet it is also, perhaps, fittingly, if not ironically, home to one of the most unforgettable love stories, as Kneehigh’s production makes clear.  Emma Rice notes in the preface to the printed text of the play that this production of Tristan & Yseult is “my letter to love . . . simple in its telling and true to the heart of the ancient myth.” (18)

Tristan & Yseult, November 22, 2013-January 19, 2014, a project of Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre and a production of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California.  Adapted and directed by Emma Rice from a script by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy.  Design by Bill Mitchell. Lighting by Malcolm Rippeth. Sound by Gregory Clark and Helen Atkinson, with Stu Baker as Composer and Ian Ross as Musical Director. Script: Tristan & Yseult, The Bacchae, The Wooden Frock, and The Red Shoes. London: Oberon Modern Plays, 2005.

Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University