“Tristan and Yseult” blends passion, comedy and despair

Every once in a while I get to experience a play that keeps me on the edge of my seat, fully immersed in the story it tells, even leaving the characters in my mind after the show has ended. That’s why I go to the theater. And that is just what I experienced at Berkeley Rep when I saw Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre’s West Coast premiere of “Tristan & Yseult.”

Andrew Durand (Tristan) and Patrycja Kujawska (Yseult) perform the title roles in the West Coast premiere of Kneehigh’s  "Tristan & Yseult." (Courtesy of Steve Tanner)

Andrew Durand (Tristan) and Patrycja Kujawska (Yseult) perform the title roles in the West Coast premiere of Kneehigh’s
“Tristan & Yseult.”
(Courtesy of Steve Tanner)

The show is a beautifully devised production based on the ancient tale, a love triangle brought to life by director Emma Rice and incredibly creative lighting, sound, and set designers, as well as the eight ensemble actors and four musicians playing at the “Club of the Unloved.”

Even before the show starts, the musicians play and sing as the lovespotters come out to the audience, talking to them and looking to spot romantic relationships. This serves well to set the tone for the journey the play takes us on, one that recognizes and involves the audience throughout (even by having audience members release balloons at one point in the action!).

The journey begins, and the fast pace and wildly exciting nature of the storytelling keeps the audience captivated the whole time. The story is narrated by Whitehands, played here by a wonderful Carly Bawden, who has a beautiful voice and a delightful stage presence. All corners of the space are used in the dynamic, musical and highly choreographed fights that occur frequently throughout the beginning of the play. As the brave Tristan, who hails from France, fights and defeats the Irish warrior Morholt, he becomes almost a son to King Mark, serving as his right hand.

Tristan embarks on a mission to find Morholt’s sister, Yseult, and bring her back to marry the king. However Tristan and Yseult fall in love as she nurses him back to health in a funny, charming and sensual musical number that includes aerial suspension around the stake in the middle of the stage, creatively making use of Bill Mitchell’s inventive set design.

Patrycja Kujawska is bewitching as Yseult, speaking and singing beautifully in Polish as well as in English. She enchants us with her energy and passion and later breaks our hearts with her despair. By placing her opposite Andrew Durand, as an impulsive but earnest Tristan, we completely buy into the love they share and wish futilely that it could somehow prevail.

Though every actor onstage was truly wonderful, the women in particular were standouts. Director Emma Rice chose to cast Craig Johnson as the maid Brangian, and although he was hilarious and had a great performance, I truly believe Brangian’s serious moments would have been much more powerful had a woman played them. With as few roles for women as there are in theatre and in this play, and with the superb talent of Kneehigh Theatre’s female players, it would have been nice to see a woman play the part.

Still, the production is dynamic and exciting, holding the audience’s attention every moment throughout, delighting us with its visual storytelling, aerial choreography, fast-paced dancing, beautiful singing… and wrenching at our heartstrings, too. It received a well-deserved standing ovation by the audience, who were not just passive spectators, but truly part of an experience.