Monday June 17, 2024


By Diana Simmonds
May 6 2024

ISOLDE & TRISTAN Sport for Jove at the Old Fitz, 3 May-1 June 2024. Photography by Kate Williams

In 1997 German-Argentinian playwright Esther Vilar’s Isolde & Tristan caused a small sensation at the Lookout Theatre – a late lamented pocket venue above a Woollahra pub. Fast forward almost three decades and Damien Ryan, who played Tristan, is back with that same play, this time beneath a pub – the Old Fitz. This time, however, he’s the director and also boss of producing company, Sport for Jove, venue guests at the invitation of New GhostsEmma Wright and Lucy Clements.

And in a further intriguing twist, Emma Wright plays Isolde in this taut, dark, disconcertingly funny iteration of the ancient Celtic legend-aka-Wagnerian colossus. On a small, single-masted ship of gleaming, shadowy, angular black surfaces that meld with an equally black piano (set designer Tom Bannerman, magical lighting by Sophie Pekbilimli) appears the Opera Singer (Octavia Barron Martin). She occupies the liminal zone between reality and myth with fragments of Wagner’s epic delivered in the style of “real” opera. (As heard in the pubs of Milan and Venice before it was kidnapped by the alta borghesia.). Pianist Justin Leong accompanies her and he also colours the action throughout with sublime musical interludes and phrases.

Usually written the other way around – Vilar was a notorious iconoclast – the legend of Tristan and Isolde, or Iseult, or Yseult, is a classic Rom-minus-the-Com as he, prince and heir to his uncle King Marke of Cornwall, is sent to Ireland to fetch the princess. It’s planned that her marriage to the king will stop wars, improve trade, and generally do all the things for which women have forever been traded.


In this instance, King Marke (Sean O’Shea) wasn’t thinking clearly in sending the scrumptiously irresistible Tom Wilson on such an errand. While he either snoozes at the helm or smoulders like a Hemsworth, his Tristan also attempts – valiantly – to fend off Isolde’s flirtations. Her mother’s Irish whiskey finally does the trick, however, and the inevitable gradually and sexily becomes inevitable.

Nevertheless, it’s not without obstacles as Tristan also, on his uncle’s orders, had murdered Isolde’s betrothed, Morold. The story’s two questions emerge from this revelation: does she find Tristan utterly beguiling, or is she really set on revenge? And, who is actually responsible for the killing: the King who ordered it, or the prince who carried out the order?

When, through storms both climactic and emotional, the ship finally reaches Cornwall, human dilemmas and realities collide. Isolde knows what she must do: her duty as the pawn in history’s longer game. Tristan, the prince in all ways, cannot believe he won’t – as always – get what he wants. At the same time, the deceptively foppish King Marke is also in the throes of delusion, and that there will be tears – and worse – before bedtime is a given.


How the dénouement is reached in just 100 finely-wrought, often violent, frequently surprising minutes is a tribute to director and cast. Isolde & Tristan is a story of love and hate, of morals and amorality; it’s a history lesson, a tragedy, a musical odyssey, and a story as old and up-to-the-minute as any that human foibles have ever imagined.

Happening in no fixed time through artful suggestions in costumes, (Bernadette Ryan), and Damien Ryan’s direction, the performances are arresting. Emma Wright and Tom Wilson sizzle as the illicit lovers, Octavia Barron Martin’s powerful soprano anchors the myth with earthy compassion, while Sean O’Shea is male aristocracy at its most comically oblivious. Justin Leong is as much a part of the drama as the actors and altogether it’s an enthralling and rare experience. Recommended without reservation.



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