Last Thursday my wife and I went to see Kneehigh Theatre’s current production in their ‘Asylum’ mode – a marquee pitched in the grounds of The Lost Gardens of Heligan, just outside St Austell – of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, which relates the life of the artist Marc Chagall, focusing on his relationship with Bella Rosenfeld; they met in 1909 when she was 20 and he was 21. They married in 1914. Kneehigh is a Cornish company specialising in high octane musical drama: not ‘plays’ in the traditional theatrical sense.
The Flying Lovers is typical of their exuberant style. Kneehigh love to use traditional stories, folktales and legends, imbuing their performances with music, dance and an energy that can border on the frenetic – but always entertaining and innovative.
TFLOV was written by Daniel Jamieson, and directed by Emma Rice, a long-time stalwart of the company, in her final production before taking up her new role as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.
The first and stronger half of the play shows their whirlwind courtship and early married life. While they were engaged Chagall left for Paris, where he became the darling of the avant-garde artistic world, developing his own unique take on contemporary trends, from Cubism through Fauvism to Surrealism.
Marc Antolin, who plays Chagall, has a gangling charm and convincingly portrayed his ingenuous sense of purpose: he was determined to make it as a painter – at all costs, sometimes including the feelings and wishes of his adoring Bella (played by Audrey Brisson), herself a talented, intelligent woman, but who sublimated her own creativity as a writer and actor to nurture his rather egotistical ambition. On one occasion he thoughtlessly disparaged her writings, and in another more shocking scene tore a page from her creative writing notebook to make a paper butterfly for their new baby. He didn’t mean to be cruel, but Bella’s pain was evident.
They both came from Vitebsk, a city in what became after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution a part of the Soviet Union. As Jews they were confined to the shtetl, had to show passports in their own country if they wanted to travel, and were highly constrained in terms of career and social life. When the revolution came they hoped their lives would become freer, but the opposite happened. Eventually they were able to escape the stifling Soviet regime and travel the world, artistic refugees.
This production was excellent at showing how artistic creativity can triumph over oppression and hardship; the love between Marc and Audrey was palpable, and delightfully conveyed through some remarkable visual imagery that ingeniously replicated some of Chagall’s iconic, vibrantly colourful paintings.
The one that sticks out in my mind is that of the entwined lovers, sinuously embracing and kissing, as Bella hands Marc a bunch of flowers for his birthday. Obviously the earth-bound actors couldn’t replicate Chagall’s trademark disdain for gravity in his subjects, but with their animation and charm, Brisson and Antolin were able to convince the audience that they really were flying.
These intimate, romantic scenes were the most successful in the performance. They were offset by those conveying the grim history of the first decades of history in Russia. Vitebsk was gradually and systematically destroyed during the course of the two World Wars, ongoing pogroms, and a Soviet system even more brutal towards the Jewish people than that of the tsars. Chagall was denigrated by the Bolsheviks for displaying bourgeois individualism in his groundbreaking artistic style, and like so many artists of the avant-garde had to ignore the critics and political enemies who despised him.
Audrey Brisson has a beautiful voice and moved and danced elegantly. Her duets with Antolin were poignant and heartbreaking by turns. The two multi-instrumental musicians, Ian Goss and James Gow, managed to sound like a small orchestra, and played with skilful animation, often participating in the action and joining in with the songs.
I particularly enjoyed the close, haunting harmonies of the four players when they sang what sounded like Slavic or Yiddish folksongs – some in the original languages. The other dominant mode was jazz, played and sung with panache, and a highly appropriate way of illustrating through music the exuberant, extraordinary work of an artist who proudly incorporated images and motifs into nearly all he painted from his Jewish heritage and provincial background – his fiddler on the roof inspired the later musical, while his rabbis and animals (green cows, winged fish) uncompromisingly populate his scenes of his beloved Belarussian homeland.
The Asylum aspect of Kneehigh’s touring company reminds us, as the programme notes and the displays in the refreshment tents indicate, of the continuing plight of refugees like the Chagalls, fleeing today’s war-zones and murderous intolerance in Syria, Afghanistan and too many other places to mention. Kneehigh Asylum also provide us, through this and other productions to come, of our responsibilities as fellow human beings towards these desperate, frightened people who’ve lost everything.
I’d urge you to catch any performance you can.