The piano overture of this little masterpiece of musical theatre already brings some reminiscence of Anatevka – it was Marc Chagall who made the fiddler on the roof a cultural icon in his paintings, reminiscing about the place he grew up in, in what is now Belarus. There is also a cello on stage (played by James Gow), singing in French, Yiddish and Russian, confidently without subtitles and followed by applause from the off.
We are watching a live stream from Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre’s stage. Director Emma Rice introduces the Wise Children crew involved in the making of this week’s four performances of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk: Piano player Ian Ross, sound engineers, the camera team and even the box office staff wave from their seats – the rest of the auditorium stays bare.
The life and love story of Marc Chagall and his first wife Bella Rosenfeld is told, how their relationship matured – accompanied by dreamy daidaidais and joyful lalalas – from the humble but irresistible “I want to draw you” to a committed “I want to waste the rest of my life with you”. The smooth fading pictures by several cameras reflect their reveries beautifully: Calm, not boring, never exhausting and without a doubt inspired by Chagall’s poetic geometrics which allow metaphors plastic support (as one critic claims).
The painter Marc hopes to return to Paris soon where one learns everything one needs to learn about drawing within ten minutes of entering the Louvre – Marc Antolin and Marc Chagall is an alert dreamer as a non-slapstick Charlie Chaplin, and the white-collared Audrey Brisson a jolly aerialist Bella. Both their smiles shine generously through their silent movie era makeup that. I envy the Jewish wedding chair dance costumes.
But no matter how happily in love, the Great War sends call-up paper from a regime having treated them always as third-class citizens – accepting that “Everything we want to take is in our minds” the couple moves around and settles for a while in Moscow. Bella takes up acting again and starts writing in Yiddish, according to her the only language enabling her to write most colourful in black and white.
On the streets police officers are lynched, shops of their community looted. Marc escapes an interrogation only by denying his Jewishness and is then offered the role of an official for the Fine Arts under the new socialist regime – the Russian male-voice choir from the off is now so overpowering it feels threatening. Not long after, he is accused by Marxists of decadency, for spending resources on bourgeois exhibitions, for leading a supremacist academy and suddenly he finds himself expelled – without having drawn a single picture here. The ego of the married painter who has not painted and that of the writer who cannot publish in the language she writes in, clash. Being celebrated as a leading expressionist in faraway Berlin does not help – nowhere in Europe seems to be a safe place. Marc and Bella finally move to America in 1941. Not speaking the language is one of many reasons their art always returns to the meaning of home, of origin, of roots and of belonging while their telephone line clicks like a Geiger counter and the second world war rages. And however bittersweet, however sad the ending, I put fish balls on the menu for this weekend and am applauding from the comfort of my sofa, saying out loud: “Life is good”.
It does not matter that my viewing experience was interrupted by a takeaway driver and by a naughty kitten walking over the laptop I had connected to the TV. After The Grinning Man, this is my second digital visit to Bristol’s Old Vic in a year I had planned to see the theatre company’s take on Malory Tower at the Southbank Centre. Instead I watched the recording of their first production, Angela Carter’s Wise Children on the BBC. Now I hope for recordings of tonight’s acapella parts.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk by Daniel Jamieson
***** out of 5 stars
Directed and adapted by Emma Rice’s Wise Children in collaboration with Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic
After four live streamed performances, an on demand version of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk was made available to those having tickets, either purchased for £16 or as a giftcard.