Old Fitz Theatre, May 5


Can reparations be made for the sins of centuries? Can a love triangle be equilateral? Unsurprisingly, Argentine-German playwright Esther Vilar gives us a “no” to both questions. More remarkable is that she asks the first one at all in the context of the myth of Isolde and Tristan, which has drifted through a cornucopia of entities across 800 years and many cultures.

But Vilar comes at the myth from a unique point of view. In 1971 she published a treatise called The Manipulated Man, which posited that, contrary to feminist thinking, women in western societies were actually the controllers rather than the controlled. Her Isolde bends Tristan and King Marke the way a ship’s sails bend the wind. Nor is she motivated merely by whims of power or sexual desire: at least partly she’s serving out the British for centuries of oppression of the Irish – which wasn’t quite true at the time the myth is set, but Damien Ryan’s enthralling production is temporally fluid, anyway.

Tom Wilson and Emma Wright. Photos: Kate Williams.

Vilar’s play (translated by Udo Borgert and Laura Ginters) does not just draw on Wagner’s opera as a primary source, it incorporates snippets of the music and libretto in a way that makes your aesthetic antennae twitch a little. Where Wagner made timeless art by brilliantly using unresolved harmonies to create ambiguities in the grand sweep of tragedy and high romance, Vilar inserts his music almost as a shock tactic in its contrast with her earthy and even racy text.

This Isolde is a peach of a role, and Emma Wright grabs her by her Irish accent and revels in the dichotomy between the minx-like seductress and the manipulative shot-caller. Playing a woman who intellectually outstrips the men and an Irish woman who outstrips these Cornish Brits, Wright is a commanding visual and vocal presence who can load a line with such withering contempt that you almost feel sorry for Tristan and King Marke.

Almost. Tom Wilson plays the rather dim Tristan: a good man if you need your boat sailed through a storm, or if you want someone decapitated. While Wilson is neither as convincing nor as engrossing as Wright, Vilar doesn’t give him anything like the same riches with which to play, and this is an inherent flaw in the work.

Sean O’Shea and Emma Wright. Photos: Kate Williams.

It comes into sharper focus when King Marke finally makes his entry (completing a cast of just three), and the evergreen Sean O’Shea imbues Marke with such charm as makes the switch in Isolde’s affections credible, even were she not cunningly wrangling them both. Marke ultimately chooses to forgive the young couple their sexual indiscretions, but Isolde couldn’t give a fig for his forgiveness, his lopsided idea of “peace” or anything else, beyond some sexual pleasure to pass the time on board – rather like the behaviour on your modern cruise ship. (Irish whiskey, meanwhile, has become the famed love potion, as it has been for millions, whether on cruise ships or dry land.)

Ryan has soprano Octavia Barron Martin impaling us on excerpts from Wagner’s opera, while pianist Justin Leong supplies those ineffable musical equivocations. Tom Bannerman’s black set is a brooding impression of Tristan’s boat, and Bernadette Ryan’s costumes morph from medievalism to something nearer modernity, as if passing comment on the inherent timelessness.

This is Ryan’s Sport for Jove company’s first foray into the Old Fitz, and it has brought a show that sustains the theatre’s reputation for surprises. Go and relish an Isolde whose hand is firmly on the tiller.

Until June 1.