Set aboard a small boat plying the seas between the ancient kingdoms of Cornwall and Ireland, German-Argentinian playwright Esther Vilar’s drama spins around the chivalric romance of Tristan and Isolde/Iseult and turns it into a provocative, spikily playful drama of colonisation, consent and resistance.

Emma Wright in Isolde & Tristan. Photo © Kate Williams

Isolde (Emma Wright), daughter of the Irish Queen, is being transported across the waters by Tristan (Tom Wilson) in order to marry Tristan’s elderly uncle, King Marke (Sean O’Shea). Their union will cement peace between warring nations – though entirely on Marke’s terms, it seems.

Tristan appears the ideal candidate to act as ferryman. He’s young and fanciable, but it was he who lopped off the head of Isolde’s betrothed, the Irish warrior Morold. So it’s hardly likely that the still-grieving Princess (whom Marke has heard is plain in the extreme) will succumb to the charms of the man who killed her lover. Less likely still that the obedient young knight will cuckold the man from whom he will eventually inherit a kingdom.

But confined aboard a tiny boat, under starlit skies and fortified by Irish whiskey … well, it doesn’t take long for the calculatingly flirtatious Isolde to undermine Tristan’s resolve.

Sean O’Shea and Emma Wright in Isolde & Tristan. Photo © Kate Williams

Interspersed with excerpts from Wagner’s opera (sung live by Octavia Baron Martin, accompanied by pianist Justin Leong), Isolde and Tristan blends elements of geopolitical satire, revenge tragedy and eloquent stage poetry into a very satisfying whole.

This production is the first mounted by Sport for Jove in the Old Fitzroy and it bears the hallmarks of Damien Ryan-directed productions we’ve seen on stages (indoors and outdoors) over the past 15 years.

Played on an expressionistic, piano-black ‘boat’ designed by Tom Bannerman, Isolde and Tristan is creatively kinetic, physically robust and clearly thought out. Interesting aside: Ryan played Tristan in the Australian premiere of the play in 1997, staged in the long-gone Lookout theatre in Woollahra.

Octavia Barron Martin in Isolde & Tristan. Photo © Kate Williams

The performances are uniformly excellent: Wright is a feisty delight as Isolde, frankly sensual and very funny. Wilson is somewhat in her shade at times, but he’s very convincing as the testosterone-driven Tristan, a young man soon to be on a steep learning curve.

O’Shea’s King Marke is hilarious, an ageing man reacquainted with his virile youth (or at least, made to believe so) and rendered love-struck by Isolde’s attentiveness. When required, he snaps hard to the more dangerous Marke, one who can demand people be tortured, murdered, whole populations put to the sword.

Very much recommended.

Isolde & Tristan plays at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo until 1 June.

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