Tristan and Yseult, Shakespeare’s Globe

Two minutes into Emma Rice and Knee High’s Tristan and Yseult at the Globe and two men are dancing together, miming falsetto. One of them is a sexy-camp bad boy. We know he’s a sexy-camp bad boy because he’s wearing a sharp suit with sockless trainers (and a lilac ruffled shirt, introducing a 70s vibe to an otherwise rather 50s styling).

What follows throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix: disco, cross-dressing, random bursts of dry ice, balloons, audience interaction, audience interaction involving balloons, acrobatics, ballroom, topical political references, aerial silks, deelyboppers, poetry, and what looks vaguely like a Kalamatianós with invisible handkerchiefs..

When the Riverdancing starts it reaches the cusp of being too much but then (marked by the most accidentally perfectly timed helicopter overhead) then the real men, the powerful men, the military men arrive, and the party stops.

But not for long, because then the fighting starts and they’re dancing, it’s a party, it’s all a party, even stabbing is a kind of dance and death just another side to life’s party.

Perhaps I’m overthinking. It’s true though that the music, carnival atmosphere, and general frenetic pace leaves few opportunities to slow down and let the real drama and emotion just… be. The first meeting between Tristan (Dominic Marsh, the standout and no doubt aimed for super stardom) and Yseult’s (Hannah Vassallo, impishly charismatic) takes place with her straddling him, unconscious in a hammock. The girl is certainly bold, but their initial encounter goes from lust to misunderstanding to hate to love in the space of about three high-energy minutes.

The cast are uniformly excellent, but the emotional highlight of the production has to go to Niall Ashdown, whose maid Brangian deftly moves between comedy and genuinely touching pathos as she agrees to give her virginity in lieu of her more experienced newlywed Queen. Bed tricks are common in classical theatre, but it’s hard to think of many plays where the stand-in’s point of view is considered. Musing the morning after, the obedient servant and (former?) Unloved regrets not that she hated the fraudulent sex, but that she liked it too much, and ponders whether her royal mistress would take her place on her wedding night.

7e4f6ccf-d95f-2659-7681fe12cf45a256But don’t worry if such wistful contemplation of the commodification of the female body and the inherent inequalities of searching for love in a brutally classicist society is not your style, there’ll be a group sing-along of Get Lucky along in a minute.

This adaptation used two separate narrators as framing devices, the first an adorable if clichéd (but it works so who cares?) coterie of “love-spotters”. These anoraked and binocular-laden misfortunates are members of an exclusive but undesirable club: The Unloved. Yes, it allows for bits of japery using old comedy standbys like the love testing machine, but the Unloved have so much heart nothing else is needed. The introduction of a second narrator with her own tragic twist ending (taken from Thomas of Britain’s version of the legend) is rather odd. True love apparently means marrying someone else and being a dick to them till they act out in frustration.


The names Tristan and Yseult have been a byword for tragic love for centuries, but this joyous party ends with a sombre ambiguity. The betrayed King Mark (Mike Shepherd, bringing real humanity and depth) could have been a one-dimensional tyrant, but he’s not. His marriage to Yseult could so easily have been a happy one. Maybe the real tragedy is not in lovers torn apart, but in the pain they inflict upon others.


Tickets from £5 (Standing) can be purchased from the Shakespeare’s Globe


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