They make quite a picture, the two of them: he’s big and disheveled, she’s tiny and acrobatic. When he stretches out on the floor, she jumps over him, and it’s the most romantic thing – that obsessed couple of newlyweds, the joy of their private world.
“You are beautiful,” she told him on their wedding day. “I want to waste the rest of my life on you.”
She is Bella Rosenfeld Chagall, he is the artist Marc Chagall, and in Emma Rice’s enchanting revival of Daniel Jamieson’s “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” the story of their decades-long marriage feels like one of Chagall’s vivid 3-D paintings were given the power to speak, sing and dance.
The exquisite Bella (Audrey Brisson) and Marc (Marc Antolin) of this chamber piece don’t really fly, not like in Chagall’s canvases – they float above roofs or through rooms and love to make them immune to gravity. But they bend and stagger like these figures (the choreography is by Etta Murfitt and Rice), and their faces are as bold as in “Birthday,” his famous work from 1915, the year they got married.
Performances late last week at the Bristol Old Vic in part of England Where theater audiences are currently not allowed, the show was streamed live at the time and will be available on request from Friday.
As a co-production with Bristol Old Vic, Kneehigh and Wise Children, it was filmed with three cameras as skillfully as Rice’s revival of “Romantics Anonymous” in September. (The sound and broadcast designer is Simon Baker, the cinematographer is Steve Tanner.)
The triumph is how handmade “The Flying Lovers” still feels and even looks at us from a screen. This is partly due to the design: Sophia Clist’s bold costumes and simple, multi-layered set, all set in the side, and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting, with its balance of saturation and subtlety.
But there’s a reticent reluctance in this company that lets warmth seep in as soon as the orchestra of two begins to play. The show hasn’t even begun when James Gow on cello and Ian Ross on piano gently and lightheartedly transport us into a Russian-Jewish past. (Ross, the music director, is also the composer.)
“The Flying Lovers” is a keepsake, and Marc – an old man, as the story begins, who was long removed from his and Bella’s hometown of Vitebsk – remembers how he has done it in his paintings for so many years.
“When some things are gone,” he says, “you thirst for their details so heartbreakingly. You feel an agony of need to remember. “
Despite the rampant loveliness of this production, the story it tells is inherently bittersweet because it tells the story of a real marriage and unfolds amid war, anti-Semitism and pogroms.
And of course it is also the story of a great man who finds a woman who believes in him, cares for him and gives him strength when he is looted – a woman whose own need for a creative life he hardly notices, let alone because supported.
Antolin, who was wonderful as the nerd male lead in “Romantics Anonymous”, gets sexier here, but he doesn’t shy away from Marc’s unreasonable, sometimes cruel self-recording. Even so, it’s disturbing to hear Marc suggest late in the play that a good model – like Bella, whom he so often portrayed – should be a marriage vow to a painter’s wife.
This 90-minute piece speeds its completion and makes Bella’s writing ambitions shorter than it should if her frustration (has she wasted her life with Marc?) Is supposed to have the punch it deserves. But Brisson makes Bella fascinating: happy, steely, divided, deep.
At the beginning of their marriage, when Marc is hired to paint landscapes at the New Jewish Theater in Moscow, Bella is fascinated by the actors.
“They swallow our whole world,” she says, “and lock it in their bones.”
So Rice and her team finished with Chagall’s world. It is wonderful. And it will hurt you to see theater live.
The flying lovers of Vitebsk
Available on request 11.-18. December; bristololdvic.org.uk.