Isolde & Tristan — REVIEW

Isolde & Tristan — REVIEW
Image: Emma Wright & Tom Wilson in ISOLDE & TRISTAN, Old Fitz. Credit: Kate Williams


The Old Fitzroy is drenched in the heavy glow of red fluorescents, with dark wood antiques, chandeliers, and peeling paint on the ceiling. It’s like stepping back in time and a fitting place to hold Sport For Jove’s Isolde & Tristan, written by Esther Vilar and directed by Damien Ryan.

The theatre is in the basement. Tiny and compact, the audience and stage take up equal parts of the room. Truly, this is the alchemy of what makes Isolde & Tristan so special.

The play is a quick witted and sharp retelling of the Celtic myth of Tristan and Isolde, heavily inspired by Wagner’s opera of the same name. Condensed into a potent 90 minutes, the story follows Tristan (Tom Wilson), Knight of Cornwall, and Isolde (Emma Wright), Princess of Ireland as they journey across the Irish sea to meet Tristan’s uncle, King Marke of Cornwall (Sean O’Shea), who plans to marry Isolde to unite their nations. But Isolde has other plans. This is not a love story. It is a story of revenge.

Emma Wright & Tom Wilson in ISOLDE & TRISTAN, Old Fitz. Credit: Kate Williams

Vilar’s writing grapples with the legacy of the myth and provides a striking rebuke against the notion that romantic love can liberate us from conflict. Ryan’s direction harmonises Vilar’s wit and anger precisely, highlighting the tensions between love and hate, and the politics that fuels them. ‘Liebestod’ – love-death, a love consummated through death or in dying – is woven throughout the story. Ryan pulls at this thread to undo the love story and restitch it into something more. Isolde and Tristan then become conduits for their respective homelands, revealing the raw sentiments each builds upon throughout their story.

Every tender moment the couple shares is fraught with anger — there is a bitterness at the edge of their dialogue that unravels every conversation. As passions rise, we are constantly reminded of the circumstances they have met under: Tristan has killed Isolde’s betrothed, Morold, and taken her from her mother and homeland. Beyond this, as Tristan is fed the ‘love draft’, his temper surfaces and heightens as Marke boards the ship and he is separated from Isolde. For this reason, we are never made to feel settled in their love story.

Emma Wright in ISOLDE & TRISTAN, Old Fitz. Credit: Kate Williams


The time shifts that bring the myth into the contemporary makes confronting these tensions fundamental. Instead of remaining in the past for the duration of the play, incrementally the narrative spans a thousand years. This is largely communicated through costume changes and later props – a spyglass becomes binoculars, a gown becomes a petticoat, a doublet a suit and tie. It’s not entirely clear in the first half of the play, when these changes are more subtle, but is helped by the music.

Performed by Octavia Barron Martin and Justin Leong, the opera and piano naturalises the thousand-year timeline of the narrative. Martin’s powerful voice accompanied by the delicacy of Leong’s piano, provides a throughline for the narrative to follow, connecting the passage of time to the play’s themes and grander mythos.

Tom Wilson in ISOLDE & TRISTAN, Old Fitz. Credit: Kate Williams

Emma Wright’s performance as Isolde is the standout of the play. She is cunning and charming and embodies the rage of grief and resistance in Isolde completely. Her entrance is quiet, only to roar as she takes up a sword and wild war cry to make an attempt on Tristan’s life. From there on, her wit and quick thinking keep the momentum of the story alive. No longer a damsel, Wright transforms the character into a revenger.

She is not all jest, there is a return to the quiet; glances to the audience as if staring out to sea, she fidgets with her dress, she plots, she sings an Irish song of resistance. In her lies the thrust of the play, her ability to gaze at the audience helps in undoing the love story and replacing it with one of retribution.

ISOLDE & TRISTAN, Old Fitz. Credit: Kate Williams

Tom Wilson, beginning as the hardened and stoic knight, seamlessly unfurls into an impassioned young man in love. Only akin to Romeo in his affections, there are no soliloquies here, only rants and fervent pleadings for Isolde to escape with him. At times his backstory is lost within the expositional dialogue, but Wilson atones for this in his ability to balance Tristan’s own anger with his sincere, though misplaced, love for Isolde.

The chemistry between Wright and Wilson is delightful as they oscillate between sparring enemies and quarrelling lovers. Their passion is fully realised in their bantering and confessions alike. When Sean O’Shea enters the fray as Marke, the dynamic evolves into something even more contentious.

Octavia Barron Martin and Justin Leong in ISOLDE & TRISTAN, Old Fitz. Credit: Kate Williams

O’Shea brings humour and levity to the latter half of the performance. It’s a welcome shift that showcases Vilar’s critique of the myth brilliantly. Bumbling and self-centred, Marke is a red herring of sorts, disguised as a barrier for the lovers to overcome. In it, we are almost convinced to root for the lovers. But this isn’t that kind of story. Through Marke’s ignorance and ramblings, he embodies the British empire, showing that the cost of peace for Isolde – and for Ireland – is freedom. In this way, the audience is confronted with the thesis of Vilar’s retelling: “How cruel must people be to believe in such love stories?” So, we remember Isolde’s song.

All of this could have worked on a bigger stage, but the intimacy of the Fitz provides a unique intensity for the story to unfold within. The space holds one’s attention and never lets it go. Exhilarating, forceful, and utterly enthralling from its first moment to its last, Isolde & Tristan is unmissable.

Until June 1

Old Fitz, 129 Dowling St, Woolloomooloo

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