A relatively new, fairly abstract play called “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” is currently playing at Wilton’s Music Hall in London, and you should see it. I had no idea what it was about, but I live nearby and it’s theatre so I was game. This charming little play, amusing and moving, surprised me with how much it accomplished with so little. It tells the love story of Marc Chagall and his wife Bella, and how they created art and love during world wars. Light acrobatics and mesmerizing movements augment their narrative, to create a touching, energetic story about a painter’s personal life. The play it seemed to be in the beginning was not the play we were left with in the end, but even so, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to tell this story.
At the start, we see young Marc and Bella meet in the town of Vitebsk, now in Belarus. More than half the population was Jewish and so it had a staggering number of synagogues at the time (early 1900s), and so it was completely decimated in the war, they tell us in the beginning. The 90-minute play, though it uses the two onstage musicians in the action sometimes, is essentially just Marc and Bella, what people in the theatre would call a ‘two-hander’ because there are only two actors but I will fight my whole life against that phrase unless the two actors each only have one hand. (It should be called a four-hander, am I right?) Anyway, it’s nice to see a play about two Jews in a room bitching. Especially in London, where many people think Jews are alien. So Marc and Bella instantly fall in love and their initial courtship is kind of adorable. They talk to the audience a lot, and Bella confides in us that she knew he liked her and yet he waited so long to kiss her. One day on a picnic she thought he was coming in for one but instead he asks for his jacket, which she is sitting on. Super awkward and so funnily adorable! It’s crazy to hindsight to think back on how lighthearted a romp it felt in these hilarious moments compared to the heartbreaking weight of the end. The best scene is when Bella celebrates Marc’s birthday – his first birthday, he says, because he never celebrated it before. This play, in its first iteration 25 years ago, was actually called ‘Birthday’, I assume to highlight this event which surely solidified Marc’s love for Bella.
As Bella and Marc’s relationship grows, they portray this by doing aforementioned acrobatics, just a little bit, enough to completely captivate and convey their story and make you want more. It was so effective to see how they were falling for each other when they were literally falling through the air and being caught by the other and stuff, to see a representation of all of Marc’s famous paintings of them flying through the air together, buoyed by their love. LOVES IT. I loves it so much that the fact that they used this incredible movement only sparingly and only in the first half made me very upset. The selling point for this show, in my view, is that it’s telling this biographical tale in this fascinating new way. I mean it’s literally called “the FLYING lovers”, you know? I wanted much more flying. To take away the part that’s different, the part that sets it apart from other straight biographical plays, makes it just like any other straight drama and it’s not strong enough without its special quirks to stand out. Still good, still moving, but not as special as it would be if the movement were incorporated throughout. And I get that the directing choice may have been to decrease the brightness of such movement as the subject matter darkened, but I am sure that they still could have integrated some sort of choreography to tell the more serious parts of the story. And some of the movement we did see was valuable in conveying melancholy. I think it could have worked throughout the darker parts. I mean Cirque du Soleil is terrifying as shit.
It also uses music to tell the story, and also moreso in the beginning. I am not sure if I would call it a musical as opposed to a play with music, since it doesn’t actually tell the story but add to it, and of course because the music, like the fun movement, is front-loaded. The two onstage musicians, James Gow and Ian Ross, jump into the action a lot to lend their voices to some songs and to say a few lines as Soviet police officers here and there, and they do a fine job supporting the two stars. Marc Antolin as Marc (I know his name is with a ‘c’ too it was fate) and Daisy Maywood as Bella are lovely actors who really make you believe that they are feeling all the things. Their trust for each other is remarkable, and since it’s there I mean why not put it to more use with more of the acrobatic partner work? I know I can just repeat myself over and over but I just so want to see what this play could be with more of what made it special since that unique aspect was so effective.
We see Marc and Bella move to Paris and to St. Petersburg, then back to Vitebsk, and hither and thither during the war time as their safety and the lives of all Jews were threatened. As the second half loses the acrobatics and a lot of the music, a little magic was lost as well, but it may also be due to the story getting serious. It felt like it was dragging a bit as we learned about how terrible the war was, but that may be because war sucks. Also, as we learned more about the characters, the initial sheen fell away. Marc, it turns out, had anger issues like many artists have when their work isn’t seen as the end all be all of everybody’s lives. At one point, Bella gives birth to their daughter while they are living in a tiny apartment amid horrible atrocities occurring, and Marc is nowhere to be found. Days later, days after his child is born, he comes home and Bella’s like ‘duuude what the hell, I’m still in so much pain and I need your help taking care of a NEWBORN’ and Marc replies “Do you think what I do happens painlessly?” Artists are not in touch with reality, I guess, is a lesson of this play.
But this artist is in touch with his emotions, and his love for Bella helped him create some of his best work. The two characters talk about how they see new colors together, through and in each others’ eyes, and it’s true that Marc was considered one of the best when it came to understanding color, probably thanks to their love, which seemed significant. As I said, the second half did drag and lose some of its distinctiveness, because as a straight play without its special assets it has to measure up to other regular straight plays, better ones. But the end kind of tied everything together in a heartbreaking bow. A song that the characters sing to open the show seemed meaningless, just a fun period-appropriate song to get the party started, but when they reprise it at the end, it seems to envelop and explain the whole story in a superb, poignant way, and in turn to fortify whatever weaknesses in the play came before it.
This Kneehigh company production of “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” is playing at Wilton’s Music Hall in London until February 10. After that, this production will tour England as well as the USA, making tour stops in Los Angeles and South Carolina. So if you are in those places, you should see it.