We gave it an A-
When you enter Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse—which is hosting the NYC premiere of Kneehigh Theatre’s Tristan & Yseult through Dec. 14—and hear the strains of a performer crooning Bobby Darin’s ”Dream Lover” while he and a band sport rain slickers, binoculars and pullover caps, it can only mean one thing: you’re knee-deep in Kneehigh-land. The British company, famous for cheeky, revisionist vamps on classic tales (The Bacchae, The Red Shoes) but most famous for their tricked-out, transporting 2008 take on David Lean’s Brief Encounter, prove yet again that being colonized by the Brits can be a rather wonderful thing.
The classic adultery-laden romance tale, typically parsed over several languages and offshoot re-tellings, gets the company’s signature goosing, substituting its usual 12th century milieu for a Godard-ian, hepcat nightspot called The Club of the Unloved. The scandalous, sensual Cornish prince Tristan (Dominic Marsh) strikes up a lusty ardor for the Irish Yseult (Hannah Vassallo), the latter of whom is the new wife of King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd), who learns of their potion-laden trysting and debates how he should take revenge. Rather than wallowing in love-triangle melodrama, Kneehigh ratchets up the entertainment value that surrounds it: audiences can look forward to balloon-inflating (yes, you get to do it too), martial arts, rope-swinging and jazzhall covers of everything from ”Every Breath You Take” to ”No Woman, No Cry”.
Best of all, despite this company’s pledge to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, Tristan & Yseult is never a mere lark. (The inspired use of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ”Sweetheart Come” over one of the more mournful passages is more haunting than anything else currently seen on the boards.) The storytelling is as vital as the stagecraft, and the performers never overstep the boundaries, most especially Niall Ashdown, who transforms what could have been a one-joke drag performance (as Yseult’s faithful, sad handmaiden) into something much more impactful. This vibrant ensemble achieves the same contagious buzz Mark Rylance and company set off with the blissful Twelfth Night last season (only with some actual women this time). It wouldn’t hurt for you to brush up on your Dexys Midnight Runners, however. A-