This intriguing title – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – reflects the lives and love of Marc and Bella Chagall; he the famous artist, she the less famous writer. He was a penniless art student when they met; she was the daughter of a wealthy jeweller. They lived in Vitebsk (I’d never heard of it, I’m afraid) which today is the fourth largest city in Belarus. They married in 1915, had a daughter, Ida; they lived in St Petersburg, Moscow, Paris and New York, as his renown and artistry grew. She died in 1944 of a sudden virus infection, easily curable if there hadn’t been a shortage of penicillin due to the war. He went on to marry again and lived till the ripe old age of 97, finally shuffling off this mortal coil in 1985.
The bare bones of a life can look stark, but Emma Rice’s production for Kneehigh brings Marc and Bella to life with such vivacity, colour, warmth, humour and a sense of sheer love that the mere dates and facts of a relationship become meaningless. Even through the hard times they never lost the ability to be playful together, and to delight in the simple things of life – like clocks, and colours, confetti and funny hats. Like all relationships, in the words of Meera Syal, it wasn’t all Ha Ha Hee Hee. There were times when he didn’t provide the emotional support that she needed. Despite his clownish demeanour, Chagall took his painting extremely seriously, frequently to the detriment of his family life. His baby daughter was four days old before he finally took time to meet her. He tears out a page from the book Bella is writing to make a paper butterfly for Ida. He isn’t remotely interested in the news that the Nazis have overrun Bella’s parents’ jewellery shop. He mocks her attempts to write because she doesn’t let it rule her life. Yet she loves him unconditionally, and always bounces back with a smile, a song and a game. We even discover how forgiving she is after her death. It’s an amazing portrayal of the resilience of the human spirit; if you’re fuelled with love, somehow your tank never runs empty.
The playfulness of their relationship and the fantasy element of Marc’s paintings are beautifully realised by the staging; a wonky platform and frame, off which suspend a surreal clock, phone receiver, buckets and handles – all you need to reflect an unorthodox existence. Other characters in their life are represented by a balloon, or a disembodied voice, while Marc dons an old black lace shawl to provide a hilarious cameo of Bella’s mother. There are two other members of the cast; James Gow and Ian Ross provide the stunningly gorgeous music with their piano, cello and other instruments. Some of Mr Ross’ compositions evoke traditional Jewish folk music with superb energy. The choreography, by Emma Rice and New Adventures’ Etta Murfitt, is slinky, funny, expressive and highly theatrical for such a confined space. Malcolm Rippeth’s exciting lighting design brings to life the Chagalls’ love for colour and vitality; and Simon Baker’s crisp and accurate sound design creates a web of magic with various effects including a distant telephone hum, and the nagging drip of water in a bucket, a strong juxtaposition of the sound of reality against the vision of fantasy.
And at the heart of the show are two sensational performances from Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood. I didn’t realise these two terrific actors were in this show until I glanced at the programme just before we went in. We’d seen Mr Antolin in the superb Taken at Midnight in Chichester a few years ago, and Ms Maywood was probably the best Bebe in A Chorus Line I’ve ever seen (and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of them!) I already guessed we were going to be in for a treat, but I underestimated how much. Having done a little research on the Chagalls in order to write this review, I’m staggered by how accurately they portrayed their actual physical appearance – a technical masterpiece of hair and makeup, that’s for sure. They also have a fantastic chemistry together on stage that really enhances the love bond between the characters, which made some of the scenes truly emotional – there were plenty of instances of the old wetness in the eye during this show.
Mr Antolin absolutely wowed me with his brilliant clowning skills, with perfect facial expressions, deft fancy footwork, and a fabulous pratfall. Ms Maywood is of course a brilliant singer and dancer, and invested the character with so much love and emotion; not only simply her overwhelming love for her husband but all the torments of those inner repressions when her needs are ignored, or when the evil world out there comes one step closer to threaten her.
One of the achievements of this production was that it made me want to find out so much more about the Chagalls and their work; it really piqued my interest in a character that I knew little about – and that’s got to be a good thing. Primarily, though, it’s an elegant, quirky, loving portrayal of two people in a hostile world, finding a way to make the best life together. Absolutely brilliant. It’s near the end of its tour now, with just Cheltenham for the first week in May and the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina from 24 May to 10 June. Highly recommended!