Tristan & Yseult

Opera House, Wellington

03/03/2006 - 07/03/2006

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details


written by Carl Grose & Anna Maria Murphy
adapted and directed by Emma Rice

Kneehigh Theatre Company, in collaboration with the National Theatre (UK)


Cornwall’s ‘oldest and greatest story’ is brought crashing into the 21st centruey in Kneehigh Theatre’s fresh and attentive take on Tristan & Yseult ...

As the unloved and unchosen, the lovesotters watch and comment on the unfolding action with a mixture on envy and sadness. The story’s romance and tragedy is told through vibrant performances with touches of of the unconventional and absurd.


designer Bill Mitchell
lighting designer Alex Wardle
sound designer Gregory Clarke
music performed by Martin and the Misfits

Katy Carmichael as Whitehands
Mike Shepherd as King Mark
Tristan Sturrock as Tristan
Craig Johnson as Duke Morholt / Brangian
Sally Dexter as Yseult
Giles King as the manservant Frocin


Comedy , Theatre ,


2 hrs 20 mins, incl. interval

A love that conquers debt

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 30th Mar 2006

IF YOU haven’t spent all your discretionary dollars yet, I strongly recommend you hurry on down to The Opera House to see the extraordinary Tristan & Yseult from Cornwall’s esteemed Kneehigh Theatre Company. If you have spent them, go into debt.

To attend this joyful, playful, comic, tragic, emotional production of the ancient love story from Kernow (Cornwall) tells you all need to know of the difference between the theatre and other forms of entertainment: the sheer physical and emotional pleasure created when audiences and performers together take flight on a journey of the imagination.

There was a party atmosphere before the play began, aided by the presence of an excellent band – The Misfits, who play an eclectic selection of tunes – and hundreds of balloons. There’s also a geeky-looking chorus dressed in anoraks and balaclavas, and sporting binoculars. They are passion watchers and members of The Club of the Unloved, whose MC, Whitehands (and later the unloved wife of Tristan), narrates the love story.

When King Mark marries Yseult, the audience joins in the celebrations and, though we are not invited to join the dancing, we do get caught up in the exuberance of the wacky dance performed by the onstage guests. When balloons are called for, we all became children again and blew them up and patted them away. There is throughout the play a lovely feeling of joy.

But adult themes of love, passion, loss and betrayal are also strongly present, and one of the beauties of the production is that the passions of love expressed in the grand Wagnerian manner are also sensationally shown in a fiery finale that uses Wagner’s music.

The production is also very physical, particularly the fight between Tristan and Morholt – a gangster-like King of Ireland – and the passionate love-making between Tristan and Yseult, which is beautifully contrasted with the delicacy of the unexpected love discovered by Yseult’s servant, Brangian.

The staging is simple: a raised circle that resembles a circus ring, with a mast on which the geeks test their passion, the defeated get strung up, and the king’s minion acts like the paparazzi when trying to photograph the lovers in flagrante delicto. It is also one of the best-lit productions I have seen.

Mike Shepherd as King Mark, Craig Johnson as the unexpectedly-in-love Brangian, Katy Carmichael as Whitehands, and Tristan Sturrock and Sally Dexter as the lovers are all quite marvellous. Go!

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Truly heartfelt tragi-comedic thrill

Review by John Smythe 28th Mar 2006

On arrival we’re each handed a white balloon and, not instructed otherwise, we inflate them. Soon the Opera House auditorium is festive with white spheres. Balloonarama! But a dozen humourless ‘anoraks’ patrol the auditorium, people the stage or comprise the elevated band – Martin and the Misfits – that is playing and singing maudlin versions of 1950s love ballads. They have a serious purpose.

The solemn sounds of Wagner, issuing from a Hi Fi gramophone, help to re-set the tone. These ‘anoraks’ from Cornwall (a.k.a Kneehigh Theatre, in collaboration with the National Theatre) are the love spotters, the passion clockers, the kiss counters. They are The Unloved and this is their club. We are gathered here to witness their re-enactment of the tragical history of Tristan & Yseult, the oldest and best-loved Cornish legend. And of course this unique approach will generate much mirth. 

What makes the show so good is that The Club of the Unloved is out – or rather in their secret hide-away – to discover true passion, albeit vicariously. Amid the comedy that inevitably arises from their earnest endeavour, the classic love story comes through in all its heartfelt and finally tragic glory. Even the rhyming couplet text is elevated from doggerel, in the best traditions of ye olde Passion plays and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The main narrator is Whitehands (Katy Carmichael), be-gloved, bespectacled and be-frocked in her 1950s Sunday best, and doomed at a glance to be a wallflower at the bible class dance. Under her guidance the tale is played out, mostly on a circular platform centrepiece that rings around a centre pole. With many a journey to be endured betwixt Kernow (Cornwall) and troublesome Ireland, and action to be played out in courts, boudoirs, fairgrounds and forests, it’s a suitably flexible stage, set in the basement club with long staircases to the privileged world above (designer, Bill Mitchell; lighting designer, Alex Wardle; sound designer, Gregory Clarke). 

Tristan (Tristan Sturrock) is toting his cello from Brittany when he gets caught up in a battle between his uncle King Mark (Mike Shepherd) and the Irish Duke Morholt (Craig Johnson). In a savage battle scene he saves the King’s life by knifing the Duke. Much to the displeasure of the King’s malevolent and sycophantic manservant Frocin (Giles King), Tristan is sent to Ireland bring back Morholt’s sister (Yseult) to be King Mark’s trophy bride. 

Yseult (Sally Dexter) is a wild child, a free spirit, with a haunting Celtic singing voice. In her sea-tossed grief and trepidation she determines to end her life with poison, but her faithful servant Brangian (Johnson again, in minimal drag) swaps it for a love potion. Yseult and Tristan carouse, arouse, fall passionately in love … In Kernow, she has no option but to go ahead with the wedding – at which point audience-members who’ve held onto their uninflated balloons get to use them. Aware she’s no maiden, Yseult enlists the virginal Branigan to produce the required wedding night results. This sequence is made surprisingly credible, and its outcome is genuinely poignant. 

Against her own expectations, however, Yseult falls for King Mark after all (this predates the legend of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, by the way, and is clearly an influence). Yet she can’t keep away from Tristan. Froggin springs them – his highly-strung attempts to snap the incriminating photo is a comic highlight – and is dismayed to find the King ungrateful. The lovers are banished to the woods and, presumably on realising they can’t live on sweet scents and music alone, the magic goes out of the relationship for Yseult (she knows which side her Cornish pasty is sauced on). She returns to King Mark. 

A bereft Tristan returns to Brittany and finds another Yseult, Whitehands no less, who finally gets sick of being the ignored but attentive wife and becomes Blackhands: "Bugger goodness!" But her deceptive strategy to win him over just hastens his demise. Yseult’s last-minute rush to be reunited with Tristan proves too late. Only a Celt could plumb the well of anguish so deeply. In a ring of fire, the whole catastrophe goes up in smoke. Cue Wagner …

With Masonic solemnity, having played out their ritual homage to tragic romance, the ‘anoraks’ ascend the stairs … until their thrilled audience commands their return with loud applause. Tristan & Yseult is definitely a Festival show that delivers the fun and magic, both comic and tragic, of truly heartfelt theatre.

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