Tristan & Yseult, Shakespeare's Globe, London, review: Kneehigh's brilliantly offbeat retelling of the ancient Cornish legend

Paul Taylor
Kyle Lima (Frocin), Kirsty Woodward (Whitehands), Dominic Marsh (Tristan) and Hannah Vassallo (Yseult) in Emma Rice's 'Tristram & Yseult' at Shakespeare's Globe: Steve Tanner

What better setting than a Summer of Love season for this latest revival of Kneehigh's brilliantly offbeat retelling of the ancient Cornish legend of transporting passion and fatal adultery. Emma Rice's production has become a cult classic and, in the outdoor playground of the Globe, its astonishing navigation between silliness and sublimity feels especially rich and resonant. The acute twist is that the iconic love story is dramatised from the point of view of the “Club of the Unloved”; a chorus of anorak-twitching “Love Spotters” who view the action through high-powered binoculars, doomed never to have a starring role. They are regimented by “White Hands” (Kirsty Woodward), a severe martinet who whisks around in aggressively smart Fifties couture, providing an acidulous commentary – such as the idea, when Yseult marries King Mark in white, that “If one were baptised in black, it wouldn't show the dirt picked up along the way.”

With a script by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, the production presents romantic love as a chemically enhanced state that can lift you off the ground or send you back to earth with a reeling hangover when the potion wears off. Dominic Marsh as a charismatically melancholy Tristan and Hannah Vassallo's fiercely elfin Yseult are dangerously high on each other in more ways than one here after they have swigged from the mixed-up bottles. The aerial choreography (on pulleyed ropes) manages to look both rapturous and a little absurd. And the production is sensitive about the collateral damage amongst those who are crucial to the story but excluded from grand passion. Yseult's maid, Brangian is played, to begin with, in the broad, music-hall cross-dresser tradition by Niall Ashdown; it's very funny as s/he struggles to keep the eponymous pair apart on the voyage back to Cornwall. But then the character is called upon to substitute herself between the sheets and lose her virginity in the dark on Yseult's wedding night to dupe King Mark (a very dignified and moving Mike Shepherd). Ashdown's exquisite performance modulates to create on one of most haunting and sad sequences in the play as Brangian recounts how she has been left sexually awakened by the experience and humiliated by the sense that she's faceless and taken for granted.

The company's trademark mix of music, dance and drama is delivered with a brio that's alive to what is both potty and piercing in the proceedings when re-angled from this perspective. You get snatches of recorded Wagner (the 'Liebestod' is eventually used to devastating effect) but there's lots of material (from a live version of Daft Punk's “Get Lucky” to the haunting traditional Irish song “My Lagan Love”) you might not necessarily have expected. At the start of the second half, for example, one of the Love Spotters treats us to a bizarrely emasculated account of “Every Breath You Take”. Addressed (we learn) to the woman living in the flat opposite who divorced him after a short unconsummated marriage, his rendition is preposterously jaunty with none of the sightly sinister sense of surveillance in the original. There's pathos in this nerd's tone-deaf notion that he can get through to his ex-spouse with this de-fanged jollity. The musicians are terrific as instrumentalists and as comedians.

The close is almost overwhelming in its intensity and its shock revelations that make you reconsider the underpinnings and aftermath of this myth, while fully justifying the use of Wagner's music. Whole-heartedly recommended.