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 I'd heard very good things about Kneehigh Theatre's production of 'Tristan and Yseult' so when I saw it was coming to Bristol I booked a ticket, and saw the show on Saturday.

 

 




It was a lot of fun. It's a serious, and tragic story, and the play does have it's poignant moments, but it's also very funny, and very physical. We also have a chorus of 'love spotters', members of the club of the unloved, garbed in anoraks and wielding notebooks, and observing those fortunate enough to be beloved.. 


It doesn't take itself too seriously, but it takes the story seriously, so it is very engaging.


I loved it. 


I wasn't particularly familiar with the story of Tristan and Yseult ahead of time, in case you are in the same position, here's a summary of the story.


The story begins with King Mark of Cornwall, whose kingdom is attacked by Morholt of Ireland. He's on the verge of defeat when Tristan, a roving French knight joins the fight. Tristan's intervention leads to victory (albeit at the cost of a wound to himself). So of course the next step, after disposing of Morholt's body, is for Mark to decide, on the basis of a single hair in a locket, that he might like to marry Morholt's sister, so he sends Tristan to fetch her. (Which you can tell is in no way going to be an awkward  conversation. "Hi, Yseult you don't know me, but, well, your brother's dead, and the bloke who killed her wants to marry you. But he is a King, if that helps"..)


Anyway,Tristan avoids having to have the conversation initially by almost dying of his wounds, and arriving unconscious on an Irish shore where he is, by a convenient coincidence, found by Yseult, who, in another amazing coincidence happens to have healing hands and is, therefore, able to heal his wound (and in absolutely no way whatsoever take advantage of the opportunity to get her hands all over a handsome and half naked young man)


There is an awkward moment when Yseult realises that Tristan's sword has a chunk missing, which exactly matches the chunk of sword-blade she found in the ashes of her brother's body, and realises that he was responsible for Morholt's death, but they quickly get over this, and indeed, Tristan's explanation that Yseult should now consider herself part of the spoils of war, and prepare to travel back to Cornwall with him so she can be married to King Mark. Yseult, you notice, does not get a say in this. But accepts the proposition without much difficulty. 


She and Tristan board a ship back to Cornwall, accompanied by Yseult's maid, Branigan. Yseult asks Branigan for a love potion with the idea of making her wedding night easier, but unfortunately, this gets mixed up with some wine and she and Tristan drink it and fall madly in lust love with each other. Despite this, Yseult is determined to go ahead with her wedding to Mark, and Tristan, too, is loyal to him. (Definite parallels with the whole Arthur / Guenevere / Lancelot (Bedwyr) love triangle here!) 

 

Yseult marries Mark, and persuades her maid, Branigan, to slip into the wedding bed with him so he won't realise that Yseult is no longer a virgin. (Mark doesn't notice this. Presumably he has spent all his time until this point focused on improving his tin-mines, and fighting the Devonians and Irish, and hasn't had a lot of time for relationships with women.)


Still with me? 


So, Mark and Yseult are married, but Yseult and Tristan are still under the influence for the love potion and continue to sneak around and continue an affair. They are, inevitably, betrayed to Mark, who makes the choice not to execute them, but instead to banish them., together. After hanging around in the forest for a while, Tristan and Yseult recover from the effects of the love potion, and separate, with Yseult returning to Mark, and Tristan returning home to France where he marries someone who, coincidentally is also called Yseult. (Yseult of the Whitehands, in this case) 


 The story concludes with Tristan, suffering from a mortal wound, appealing to Yseult to come to heal him. He asks that the ship should sail with white sail if she is aboard, black if not, so he knows whether or not she has responded to his call. However, Yseult of the Whitehands is jealous of his first love, and lies to him, telling him the ship has black sails. Tristan promptly dies from disappointment (and, possibly, his pre-existing mortal wound). Yseult then arrives, and promptly dies of grief upon finding him dead.


It's a cheerful tale. 


I would definitely recommend it (although Bristol was the penultimate stop on the tour - it's at the Galway International Festival until 22nd July, then that's it, so you need to be quick (and in Ireland!))

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