After the very under-whelming TAMING OF THE SHREW on the main stage I must admit I was wary of going into this production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as it was a production directed by the new artistic director Emma Rice and while it was better than I expected it also betrayed all the irksome 'poor theatre' trops that signpost Director Theatre these days.
Daniel Jamieson's THE FLYING LOVERS OF VITEBSK tells the story of painter Marc Chagall and his first wife Bella who was an obvious muse for his other-worldly, surreal paintings that also drew their inspiration from their hometown of Vitebsk in Belarus. We follow how Chagall met the vibrant and educated Bella and how she gave up her own interests in theatre and writing to bolster his painting.
WWI occurs as they marry and have a child (Marc's absence for several days after the birth proving a challenge to Bella) and unhappy with the Soviet appropriation of the arts they start a peripatetic life that takes them from Germany to France and finally the US as again a World War rages around them and news filters through that the Nazis have finished what the Soviets started, the eradication of their home village of Vitebsk. The pay ends with Bella's sudden death in 1944 and a re-married Chagall haunted by her memory.
The action takes place on an unwieldy set of various wooden poles and canvasses which doesn't help the small acting space or the sightlines in the Wanamaker auditorium. For a production that tried to invoke the floating otherness of Chagall's paintings I found it remained particularly earhbound.
Again my problem with the schtick of Emma Rice and co. is that for all their much vaunted imaginations it all gets awfully tired after a while - when Chagall tossed snowflakes in the air for the fourth time to denote bad weather I groaned. It's all surface.. the passion feels very inch-thin.
This is particularly troubling when you are dealing with Marc and Bella Chagall, you never feel the desperation they must have felt at being displaced from their home again and again, in Rice's production we just get two whey-faced, sad, knock-kneed waifs who give the impression of having escaped from a Tim Burton film not a war-torn country where their Jewishness has sealed their fate.
However - despite all the overdone cuteness - there is a delightful performance lurking within it from Audrey Brisson as Bella, she far outshines the droopy sad-sack performance of Marc Antolin as Chagall. She holds the attention throughout and suggests a three-dimensional, living person amidst the dress-up flavour of the show.