Focusing on the romance between Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall and his first wife Bella Rosenfeld – the subject of many of Chagall’s paintings – this new production from Cornish theatre company Kneehigh is an attractively visual and aural experience set to the backdrop of both Chagall’s career and the tumultuous events of world history.
With a minimalist approach of two actors and two musicians, the play tells its story through the use of song, dance, choreographed movement and the interplay between Marc (Marc Antolin) and Bella (Audrey Brisson). Sophia Clist’s attractively intimate and economic set design of slanted stage, criss-crossed poles, varying coloured backgrounds and sail cloths is the unchanging antithesis of an unsettled existence fuelled by Marc’s pursuit of an artistic career and the uncertainty of international affairs; amongst the upheaval of World War 1, the Communist pogroms of the Russian Revolution and the horrors of Nazism, the setting vacillates between the two lover’s hometown Vitebsk, Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg and Moscow.
The play ably captures a nostalgic and authentic evoking of the past – particularly through the excellent live music performed on piano, mandolin and double bass – and offers up an enjoyably whimsical and comic touch. Antolin has a silent-film clownishness, his delicate physicality and facial expressions referencing a combination of Marseille Marceau and Buster Keaton.
Elsewhere, a brief encounter with a third character is brought to life when Brisson animates her arms through the slots of a painted canvas of a rabbi, Chagall’s paintings of animals are referenced through some novelty headgear and there’s a post-modern moment when theatre is described as just “words and pointless moving about.”
Though there are moments when the romance of Marc and Bella’s relationship reaches an engaging poeticism – on their first meeting Marc’s blue eyes are described as “splinters of heaven” and Bella lovingly asserts that she “wants to waste the rest of her life with you” on their wedding day – it rarely manages to demand any proper sense of audience investment.
Though the characters are undoubtedly at the mercy of some pernicious times in world history, the allusive backdrops of the revolution and the Second World War, for instance, are so subtle as to be rendered almost incidental. Overall, the plot fails to capture any of the high-stakes drama that would’ve kept the audience guessing or ultimately caring about the destiny of Marc and Bella’s relationship.
The play’s strong points undoubtedly lie in the quaint visual allure and excellent musical interludes. Antolin and Brisson are brilliant throughout, both in their acting performances and their beautifully harmonious singing voices, and the live musicianship never ceases to evoke a real sense of romantic nostalgia.
These elements of the show are so good as to compensate for any lack of investment in the narrative; when the performers return to the stage for a rendition of 1944 jazz number “Making Believe It’s You”, it’s both a lovely parting gift and a powerful confirmation of the show’s true strength.