First published in The Times, Friday August 18 2017
The painter Marc Chagall often depicted himself and his first wife, Bella Rosenfeld, as lovers floating through the air. An equally poignant image is that of Bella “with white collar” as a giant standing over a pastoral landscape. Chagall would outlive his great love by some 40 years, but her vitality and quiet strength would loom large in his work until he died.
When we first meet Chagall (played in Emma Rice’s final production for Kneehigh by Marc Antolin) he is an old man, heading down a path of Proustian retrospect into the green and gold-lit town of his birth, Vitebsk. On meeting Bella (Audrey Brisson), the daughter of a wealthy jeweller, their connection is instantaneous. He asks to draw her. “Draw me? He was killing me!” says Bella. “He’d climbed inside me and was running along beside me.”
Pic: Steve Tanner
Daniel Jamieson’s script, a blend of monologues and dramatic set pieces, chronicles with feather-light delicacy the couple’s 35-year love affair and their often gruelling journey from their hometown to Saint Petersburg and on to France and the United States. The pair survives the destruction of the pogroms (captured by Chagall in his work), navigates the Russian Revolution and even manages to stay one step ahead of the Nazis.
Remarkably, Jamieson succeeds in touching upon the many turbulent events that impact on the Chagalls’ lives in the inter-war years without ever allowing the historical details to bloat their compelling personal story. The playwright expands upon the couple’s biography to look at the question of sustaining cultural traditions while in exile as well as the sacrifices required by a lover when called upon to shore up an erratic artistic temperament.
Pic: Steve Tanner
Rice’s production, which takes place on or around Sophia Clist’s raft-like set, is garnished with multiple textures. The director seamlessly incorporates movement and music inspired by the Russian-Jewish tradition and Chagall’s paintings. The bright colour palette of Clist’s designs and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting contrasts with the more mournful passages of Ian Ross’s score.
Occasionally, the pacing feels a little hectic but the performances always hold the attention. Antolin succeeds in capturing the less-than-sympathetic aspects of Chagall’s character, his single-mindedness and perfectionism, while also investing him with an endearing boyishness. Brisson is wonderful as Bella, full of life, exuding a quiet strength, singing beautifully in French and Yiddish. Their captivating romance is encapsulated in the show’s small details, the way they can move from squabble to moulding embrace in a flutter or a heartbeat.