‘The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk’ theatre review – TANK Magazine

I wrote this review for TANK Magazine, where it was first published in February 2018 here.


Audrey Brisson and Marc Antolin in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, 2018. Photograph © Steve Tanner

In a fluid moment of physical theatre, Marc Antolin strokes a thick paintbrush down the curve of Daisy Maywood’s spine, bending her over backwards until her lips meet his in an upside-down kiss. The figures’ embrace is a theatrical mirror of the painting Birthday by the Russian-born artist Marc Chagall. In Birthday, Chagall paints himself and his wife Bella in mid-air sharing a similar spider-man embrace. Yet in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, Kneehigh Theatre’s award-winning rendition of the couple’s lives, the painting has been inverted – it is Bella, not Marc, who bends over backwards. This swap captures the sentiment of the production in one action; the play focuses not on Chagall’s artistry, but on the love which propelled and sustained it. Emma Rice’s delicate, four-man production depicts Chagall’s fame in the same way the artist himself understood it – as being indebted to and inspired by his wife. In another moment, paintbrush in hand, he points to Bella and asks himself: “Does she know that everything I have ever done is for her?”

Intertwining the couple’s romance with their first-hand experiences of 20th-century history – from the Russian Revolutions in St Petersburg, to Paris, New York and the destruction of their Jewish homeland – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is as energetic and colourful as Chagall’s paintings themselves. Speaking of Chagall, the surrealist author André Breton said that, “Under his influence, metaphor made its triumphal entry into modern painting.” In Rice’s production, it makes another triumphal transition, leaping out of Chagall’s paintings and onto the stage at the beautiful Wilton’s Music Hall. To take one example, as years in which Bella neglects her writing to support her headstrong husband’s painting and bring up their daughter go by, she quietly lines up pairs of boots at the front of the stage, wedging a notebook between each one. The move is a reminder that contained somewhere within those notebooks were the words Bella would turn into her two published collections of prose and poetry, Burning Lights and First Encounter. The extensive number of shoes and notebooks seems to suggest that, had it not been for the prominence of Marc’s creative output, there might have been many more of Bella’s collections to come.

Audrey Brisson and Marc Antolin in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, 2018. Photograph © Steve Tanner

Yet this is not to say that the play tries to take away from Marc’s success, or insists that Bella was suppressed as an artist by her husband. In fact, in putting Marc’s paintings at the forefront of the production they counterintuitively take a back seat, as their recurring subject matter is what dominates – the subject of Marc and Bella, the subject of love. Chagall’s paintings are pervaded by love – in many he and Bella fly across rooms, over landscapes or between rooftops, always entwined together. Even in paintings in which the pair are not the subject, love still presides over the canvas, as Marc’s marital muse inspired his passion for colour and shape. He painted their life together into dreams as magically imaginative as the inside of a child’s mind. In Blue Circus, a fish curls around the moon, holding out with a human hand a bouquet of pink roses. Beside it, a woman dives like a mermaid towards a green horse that might be a dragon, whose blue eyes sparkle with seduction.

Like most of Chagall’s works, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is a love story first, and an exposition of the two artists’ lives second. This fits perfectly with the couple’s own views – Chagall once observed to a friend, “In our life there is a single colour, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the colour of love.” The strength of this love and its colourful manifestation in Chagall’s work is and was admired by many, not least Picasso, who said when ruminating over Matisse’s death that “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.” This radical use of colour in his surreal compositions are replicated in Kneehigh’s visionary use of theatre – the duo dance in multi-coloured costume across a stage tilted at an unnatural angle, and as Chagall bounds around with a huge green cow affixed to his head, he shouts, “I painted the cow green, because I liked it that way!”

Audrey Brisson and Marc Antolin in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, 2018. Photograph © Steve Tanner

The multiple canvases that Chagall devoted to himself and his wife are also repeatedly envisioned in Antolin and Maywood’s seamless interaction. The two actors move with a simple unison, as though they were puppets attached to the same strings – perfectly recreating the couple’s well-known declaration that they “see the world in the same way.” Much of this vision of the Chagalls’ was directed backwards, towards their Jewish upbringing in their Belarusian hometown, Vitebsk. Kneehigh also brings this aspect of their work onto the stage as the duo punctuate their performance with sweetly sung songs and dances in the Russian-Jewish tradition, accompanied by Ian Ross and James Gow on piano and folk guitar.

An aural and visual feast, it is a rare treat to indulge so unashamedly in romance, especially when so elegantly done. This delightful production bubbles over with effusions of art and love as Marc and Bella’s story flies onto the stage with all the rainbow magic of the artist’s singular paintings. §

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