Passion in separation: Tristan and Isolde by Saburo Teshigawara & Rihoko Sato

Coronet Theatre, London
June 3, 2022

Saburo Teshigawara’s Tristan and Isolde is an extraordinary work that strips all external decoration and detail to find a precious kernel that is terrifying in its purity. Tristan and Isolde, one of opera’s greatest love stories, sung to one of the greatest scores, is played on a stage bare except for the dark drape, the shadows sculpted by probing lights. A man and a woman dressed in black pinpoint the heart of Wagner’s masterpiece: a love that can never be.

Saburo Teshigawara and Rihoko Sato
in Tristand and Isolde
Photo Mariko Miura

The passion finds its potency in separation, coming temptingly close, hands tingling with desire. At one moment his hands even encircle her head, but the moment of contact never comes. The soaring sweep of Wagner’s melodies gives the movement a timeline while the lighting effects, also by Teshigawara, are sharply defined and expertly direct the action.

The opening scene has alternating spots on the two dancers. Like a series of messages back and forth, longing is expressed in Sato’s undulating arms and body and urgent desire in Teshigawara’s fleet footwork and staccato movements.

Later, the bands of light that intersect the stage create two trajectories. One traverses, the other creates a pathway forward to confront the audience in powerful gaze. The two move swiftly along these paths, skilfully passing, never touching, but totally absorbed by the other in powerful mental focus.

The chemistry between the two is palpable and heightened by the lack of physical contact. At the death of Tristan his coat is folded with infinite care and placed centre stage. Isolde falls upon it, and in an outpouring of grief that absorbs her whole body, she wraps the black garment around her head, frantically wrapping and unwrapping. Finally, she collapses between the heavy curtains now flooded in blue light. In the simplicity of a black box, she creates the heights and depths of passion worthy of an opera stage. In the final moment, she walks forward her eyes raised in transcendental ecstasy as the lights fade.