Tristan and Yseulet: Love amid the scaffolding

Andrew Durand (Tristan) in Kneehigh's production of Tristan & Yseult 
Andrew Durand (Tristan) in Kneehigh's production of Tristan & Yseult 
Photo by Steve Tanner
I wasn't sure what to think of Tristan and Yseult during its frantic and frenetic first half. Britain's Kneehigh brought a palpable energy to the Guthrie stage, but I didn't feel completely in phase with the show.

Any doubts disappeared during the production's dynamic second half. Here, the various riffs, remixes, and reappraisals of the Cornish legend came into brilliant focus. By the end, I wanted to revisit the first act again (the whole show, really) to relive this absolutely alive theatrical experience.

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This is Kneehigh's second visit to the Guthrie. Back in 2010, they produced one of the year's highlights with a clever version of the Noel Coward-penned film, Brief Encounter. Like that, this production engages in theatrical wizardry to bring the story to life. In place of the mix of film and stage work, we get a show that uses some circus elements. We have actors hanging and flying above the stage; or a trampoline that allows a character to arrive on the main stage with an extra bounce in his step.

Even if you don't know Richard Wagner's opera, it's pretty clear that this is a story that isn't going to end happily for our title characters. They are young people in the arms of passion, which means she is going to have betray her husband and he has to betray the man who has treated him like a father: the King of Cornwall, Mark. 

How that journey plays out is what makes this such a compelling piece. The conceit is that the story is being told by a group of lonely hearted "lovespotters," who sport ill-fitting hoodies, thick glasses, and notebooks where they record the relationships they cannot feel.

When they get a chance to take part in the tale, the actors transform. Tristan (Andrew Durand) arrives with a look that is part Russian model, part 1984-era Morrissey. Yseult (Etta Murfitt) thrives on the Irish fire of her fine-haired character. 

Watching over it all is Whitehands (Carly Bawden), the narrator who watches over the proceedings, only revealing her involvement near the end of the piece. By then, we have been to hell and back with the characters; living and breathing with their passion to the point where it threatens to set the stage on fire (or that could be the real flames used in the finale).

Like she did with Brief Encounter, adaptor and director Emma Rice doesn't let the various conceits interfere with the honesty of the actors or the story. What seems just like window dressing early on evolves essential pieces of the storytelling, all of which makes this a tremendous experience.


Tristan and Yseulet
Through March 23
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 612.377.2224 or visit online.
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Guthrie Theater

818 S. 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415


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