Guthrie’s “Tristan and Yseult” succeeds with dynamic storytelling


Laura Slade

Junior InDepth Editor Eva Perez-Greene represented St. Paul Academy and Summit School at Minnesota High School Press Association & Journalism Educators of Minnesota’s Journalism Day at the Guthrie. “Director Emma Rice’s cheeky, playful vision revamps the tale for a modern audience without compromising its integrity,” she wrote in her review of the play “Tristan and Yseult”.

InDepth Editor Eva Perez-Greene won first place for this review, written for Journalism at the Guthrie Day.

The Cornish-based theater troupe Kneehigh breathes new life into the Guthrie Theater with “Tristan and Yseult”, a modern adaptation of the Cornish love story. Director Emma Rice’s cheeky, playful vision revamps the tale for a modern audience without compromising its integrity. Actors, clearly masters in the art of storytelling, create and sustain a light but substantive, silly but smart, and new but old mood that engages the audience from start to finish. There is nothing boring about “Tristan and Yseult”.

The story is simple: Tristan, a worldly French-speaking pretty boy, wins a war and returns with a wife, the lithe and spirited Yseult, for King Mark of Cornwall to wed. Tristan and Yseult swig love potion on their sea voyage back to Cornwall and fall madly in love. However, there’s a refreshing twist in this love story which is that Tristan and Mark love each other, rendering each unable to destroy the other for Yseult’s love. The dynamic between both men plays itself out in unexpected ways and what appears to be a love triangle is actually a love square with Tristan’s wife always lurking in the periphery.

Andrew Durand’s Tristan is a restless and slightly sulky French boy who slinks about with a primitiveness that’s strangely endearing. He’s all brawn and no brains. Yseult, played by Etta Murfitt, on the other hand, is kind a spirited maiden who’s got both brains and brawn going for her. Murfitt’s optimistic and spiritual take on Yseult complements Durand’s pessimistic and worldly take on Tristan.

Stuart Goodwin plays a sleek and sharp looking King Mark who could just as easily pass for a corporate tycoon. Mark wears a fitted jet black suit and dark tinted shades, but behind his icy garb lies a much kinder soul than one would expect. Carly Bawden plays a mysterious and vigilant character whose silent presence, narration, and singing are intriguing. She wears a memorable yellow tweed skirt suit and white converse which blatantly clash with her stormy demeanor, but match her sunny voice. Bawden’s character’s identity isn’t revealed until the end of “Tristan and Yseult”.

Kneehigh Theater weaves disparate elements into a masterfully mellifluous composition which lulls the audience into a dreamlike trance. As if they were dancing tango, the show’s actors engage in a dynamic back and forth with the excellent live and recorded music. Director Emma Rice infuses rhythm and musicality into almost every literal and figurative facet of  “Tristan and Yseult”.

The scenes in which Tristan is at sea before and after he has retrieved Yseult are particularly euphonic in their staging. Tristan is swung back and forth in a silky, almost diaphanous hammock which cradles him like a cocoon as he drifts away at sea. The legato tempo of Tristan’s voyage quickly evolves into a more appassionato tempo when Yseult enters the picture. On their return voyage, the couple makes falling into drunken love look like a routine from Cirque du Soleil as they soar with bungee cords, a metaphor for the weightlessness of intoxication and lust.

Set design for “Tristan and Yseult” is raw and simplistic.  A raised, circular platform is the center of action and its shape mimics that of a record player placed deliberately downstage left. The show begins and ends with the playing of a record, underscoring the idea that life is like a symphony that rises and falls cyclically.

Set apart on the rafters and marked by an electric neon sign is the “Club of the Unloved” where the unhappiest, most-ill fortuned congregate to play the tune to others’ joy. The “Club of the Unloved” serves as a constant reminder that those who aren’t loved are quite often the “accompanists” to those who are loved.

Self-deprecating and physical humor were executed with perfect timing in this show and Yseult’s handmaiden Brangian (Craig Johnson) was undoubtedly the comedic star. A woman but obviously meant to appear as a gay man, Brangian often springs onto the stage from his mini trampoline with a hop and a skip to aide his mistress Yseult. In “Tristan and Yseult” humor is served up with a transparency and conviction that manages to keep the balloon of fantasy intact.

“Tristan and Yseult” at the Guthrie is a refreshingly positive and entertaining show that’ll leave you feeling energized instead of exhausted when it’s ended. Go see it!