Anna Kilcooley is blown away by Kneehigh's hilarious and heart-wrenching adaptation of Cornish legend... 

Tristan and Yseult

With neon lights glowing for the ‘Club of the Unloved’ and the live band striking up Elvis’ ‘Only the Lonely’ as the audience filled the auditorium, it was clear Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Tristan and Yseult wasn’t going to be an entirely traditional retelling of the Arthurian legend. 

Cornwall is at war with Ireland, and after defeating his enemy, Morholt, Cornish king Mark claims Morholt’s sister, Yseult, as his own. Sending his newly-discovered and brooding French son, Tristan (a cheerful chap – ‘born in sorrow, for pity’s sake’) to search out Yseult, Mark’s plans go a little awry thanks to a mishap with a love potion (Tristan’s accent and bad-boy attitude had nothing to do with it then, Yseult?).

Kneehigh's production offers everything. There’s murder, heartache, romance, passion, acrobatics, comedy and a score so fantastic you rather hope there’ll be someone in the foyer selling CDs on the way out.

There’s a particularly strong performance from Craig Johnson who plays Yseult’s lady-in-waiting, Brangian, as well as one of the crew of ‘lovespotters’, with hilarious interchanges between the two characters.

Tristan and Yseult

The comedy is what really sets this show apart. Every laugh was genuine. From the ‘passionometer’ (with readings of ‘wet fish’ and ‘soggy biscuits’) to the audience becoming at one point so involved Brangian is forced to ad-lib and remind them her questions are rhetorical.

We’re asked to use our imaginations and turn round to the back of the theatre to see the cliffs of Cornwall approaching from the deck of the ship, with many looking round clearly expecting to see granite rising out of the back walls of the theatre. There’s a perfect dose of panto-esque audience participation – but I won’t spoil the surprise.  

Tristan and Yseult

It’s not all jokes though; the play has its heart-wrenching moments. Tristan’s speech at the wedding of Yseult and Mark is impassioned enough to put you at the centre of his heartache, and a romantic woodland moment set to Nick Cave’s ‘Sweetheart Come’ takes you straight to their mystical Cornish woodland. 

It’s a mistake I’m learning not to make as I step into Bristol’s Old Vic – to expect the classics to be told in renaissance dress and lines rattled off from the same old scripts.

The beautiful façade of the building (all be it peeping over its construction hoarding until refurbishment is complete in 2018) hides the theatre’s true strength though: to consistently put on cutting edge productions which are a tour de force from start to end. 

Tristan and Yseult is at The Old Vic until 15 July


Bristol Old Vic Theatre
Bristol Old Vic

Britain's oldest working theatre showcases some of the most cutting-edge theatre in the country.