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Mythical Cornish story casts its spell all over again

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: June 28, 2013

  • Scenes from Tristan and Yseult, clockwise from top left, Let's dance; the club of the Unloved; Whitehands (Carly Bawden) as singer and violinist; Tristan and Yseult (Tristan Sturrock and Patrycja Kujawska) falling in love – literally; the Unloved Craig Johnson; and the lovers in conflict PICTURES: STEVE TANNER

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Hall for Cornwall, Tuesday

They say the best wines improve with age, and I'm delighted to say that the same can also apply to theatre productions.

I confess to being a little apprehensive about revisiting the Kneehigh show that I loved so much when I first saw the company perform it in the eerie environs of Restormel Castle. I didn't want to break the original spell which still lingered, ten years on.

I should have known there was no need to worry. If anything, this new production of Tristan and Yseult is richer and more enchanting, the work of a company that's perfectly attuned and firing on all cylinders.

In essence it's a swashbuckling, erotic and heartbreaking modern take on a mythical Cornish story of politics and love, packed with intrigue, as well as offbeat humour.

It's a high-energy show that lifts you with joy one minute then plunges you into misery the next. I shed tears of both kinds during the evening.

The action opens in the Club of the Unloved, who are clone-like observers, deprived of both the pleasures and the heartbreak, as the forbidden passion between the dashing Tristan (Tristan Sturrock) and the beautiful Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska) unfolds.

These bespectacled people-watchers provide poignant comic relief alongside the court of King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd), where invasion and violence are commonplace and betrayal hides in every shadow. Played out on a Cornish stage, its location bonded the audience from the start.

While the plot weaves around the lead trio, this is a real ensemble piece which makes excellent use of individual strengths; there are no stars – simply a production that is greater than the sum of its parts. Giles King is fawningly menacing as Mark's crazed sidekick Frocin; golden-voiced Kneehigh newcomer Carly Bawden made an indelible mark as the tale's narrator (and club singer) Whitehands; Craig Johnson swung his accomplished comedic prowess like a pendulum as both Brangian and Irish invader Morholt.

The action was incredibly physically demanding – from fight scenes and celebration dances to airborne love scenes and comic dives.

A broad circular wooden platform takes centre stage, complete with hoists, pulleys and curtains, allowing the performers to rise and fall, both literally and metaphorically. On here were played out violent battles, wedding parties and exquisite love scenes, enhanced by an alternately vibrant and haunting musical set which stood as an outstanding soundtrack – from recordings of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde to Balkan-infused original dance numbers from MD Stu Barker the live band (who double as balaclava-wearing Unloved).

The choreography was original and inspired and Emma Rice's direction superb.

Ten years ago I wrote that Kneehigh's Tristan and Yseult was theatre at its most absorbing and entertaining. I haven't changed my mind. This is a show not to be missed.


Tristan and Yseult runs today and tomorrow, with a matinee and evening performance tomorrow. Some last-minute tickets may be available. Call the Hall for Cornwall box office.

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