I’m the first to admit that my knowledge of artists and their work is abysmal which is possibly why found Kneehigh’s The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, which opened on Tuesday, so enthralling and original.
Flying Lovers is a magical, surreal and beautifully crafted story of Russian artist Marc Chagall & his wife, Bella. Theirs was an enduring romance that was played out through revolution, war, pogroms and poverty.
The production, enjoying a brief tour, first opened at Bristol Old Vic, which is co-producing, and it enchanted audiences. Now ensconced in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe, I’m expecting London will also fall under its spell.
Kneehigh’s former artistic director, Emma Rice, must be chuffed to bring her inventive production to her new billet at The Globe. If anything showcases her talent as a bold and inspirational director then this two-hander must surely be it.
Chagall, for those of you as ignorant as I, was at the forefront of impressionism, cubism and surrealism (and possibly many other arty-isms). His modernist work challenged concepts and ideas (“The cow is green”, he declared “because I like it that way!”).
One day he met a young girl, Bella Rosenfeld, and both knew in an instant that they would stay together forever.
Rice pitches her young lovers onto designer Sophia Clist’s quirky raised stage which is straight off a Chagall canvas.
You get the feeling that the production has come to the wrong address, and should be further along the South Bank, in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, rather than in the historically-designed Globe. Artistically, there couldn’t be a greater contrast.
The set is askew, the stage-upon-a-stage raked at an angle and framed by the trunks of ash trees. Props are hung, there are ropes to swing from. You’re looking at a Daliesque landscape or, even, a Chagall still life.
Everything about Flying Lovers is poetic and graceful. Emma Rice, acting as director and co-choreographer, moves her players through the story with balletic poise, each gesture a sketch of eternal love.
Marc Antolin, a mop of unruly dark hair and wearing the paint-splattered uniform of an artist at work, brings the athleticism of a dancer and the madcap antics of Buster Keaton to the role of Chagall.
He picks up his young love, a petite Audrey Brisson and passes her over his head and around his body. Each movement in itself a work of art, a modernist and vibrant instillation amid a static study in black and green.
The narrative comes from the pair of them as they interact with the audience, passing them props, shaking their hands and welcoming them to events in their lives.
Daniel Jamieson’s dialogue is warm and witty as he takes us into the zany world of a new age artist.
Chagall moved to Paris in 1910 to develop his work, and, while there, discovers cubism and futurism, but he returns to his beloved Vitebsk at the outbreak of war to marry Bella.
Being Jewish they found themselves unable to leave the country. “Russia is sealed up!” cries the artist. He’s shocked to receive call-up papers. “They want me to fight for my country when I am considered a third-class citizen!”
Amid war and persecution we follow the Chagalls as the artist struggles to establish himself and care for his family. He starts an art school and, later, ends up working in a Jewish theatre painting stage scenery.
All the while a frustrated Bella, with her own story to tell, takes to writing, filling notebooks with her thoughts and ideas.
A final scene sees the couple gently bickering over fish balls. It is a beautifully endearing moment in a remarkable and beguiling story.
Antolin and Brisson are extraordinary; the production is interwoven with some superb music and songs from Ian Ross; and, visually, it is a masterpiece. An exceptional work of art.
The flying Lovers of Vitebsk plays at Shakespeare’s Globe until July 2 before moving to The Nuffield Southampton (July 5-9) and The Asylum, Hall for Cornwall, Truro (July 14-31).
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk paints a vivid portrait of artist Marc Chagall & his wife Bella. A masterpiece that’s packed with charm and wit.