Tristan and Yseult at Bristol Old Vic

Love. We’ve all known it in one guise or another. Whether you’re head over heels in it, or bereft at its absence it’s something that’s touched everyone. This theme runs deep through the beating heart of the quite frankly delicious reworking of Tristan and Yseult by the Kneehigh Theatre company, currently at the Bristol Old Vic until July 15th. The original story of Tristan and Yseult comes from the 12th century and centres on the story of a Cornish knight and his adulterous affair with an Irish princess. This heavy going medieval romantic tragedy seems a whole world away from the jazz club, neon lit, industrial set, balaclava laden feast that Kneehigh have created. All the main plot points and characters are there, but presented in a rich, engaging and entertaining style so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking that this piece has origins that are 800 years old.
Where there is light, there is also dark. Where there is love, there is also those who do not have it. Enter ‘The Unloved’. As we took our seats the stage was already busy with action; half a dozen or more kagool, spectacles and balaclava wearing characters who at first glance resembled Richard Ayoade dressed for a cold day’s train spotting, wandering through the crowd taking notes and asking questions. These fabulous characters provided the counterpoint to the main love story; ever present but always on the sidelines, a constant reminder that being loved is never a given and can be revoked without warning as a result of one’s action or inaction. I heard them described as ‘low state happy’ which perfectly summed them up, a little like the Minions from the Despicable Me movies. And just like the Minions they provided some of the funniest moments in the piece. Laugh out loud funny, audience interaction and tragic love story are a very tricky balancing act to pull off but Kneehigh have produced something very special here and it’s testament to the fabulous acting, direction and musicianship. Beautifully acted, movingly tragic and achingly funny would be phrases that I’d use to describe this piece of theatre but the sum of its individual parts creates something much more than this. The main story moves along swiftly enough but it was the overarching themes of love, passion, loss and loneliness that really engaged me and kept me thinking for a good long while afterwards. Being one of The Unloved by choice is one thing, having the status of Unloved placed upon us as a result of our own actions is something we should all seek to avoid. The truth is though, none of us are ever very far from our own kagool and balaclava…
Afterwards we were treated to a Q&A session with members of the cast and show director Emma Rice, led by Bristol Old Vic Artistic Director Tom Morris. It was a fascinating insight into how the company work together to create a piece of work, and to hear more of the history of the show. And  now that I know its been staged at the spectacular Minack I Theatre in Cornwall I’ll certainly be there with knobs on if it ever goes back! But, for now, I urge you to seek out this beautiful piece of theatre whilst it runs at the Bristol Old Vic.
Review by David Blake

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