Kneehigh have been making theatre for over three decades but it has been the Emma Rice years in which the company have had their glory years. Now head of Shakespeare's Globe, The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk is her valedictory production for a company she has given her life and art for. While by all accounts her recent Dream for the Globe was alive, vibrant and full of punch, the work she has created here is of a smaller scale; slow, elegiac and, dare one whisper it, a little dull.
This is a project that clearly has resonance for Rice, she originally helped create and played in Daniel Jamieson's work as part of Theatre Alibi in the early nineties. It isn't difficult to see what drew her to the project of painter Marc Chagall and his muse (and writer in her own right) Audrey. She, like them, has always had the feel of a wandering artist and her work carries those same expressionistic flourishes that Chagall was credited in creating. If anyone can get to the heart of what it means to be a 'true' artist it is another honest to God one.
Yet Jamieson's text falls into the problem so many biographical plays face of just being one thing after another. This artistic duo were at the hub of some of the key moments of the twentieth century; caught up in the horrors of the first and second world wars, at the forefront of the art scene coming out of France in the early thirties, connected to Stanislavski and his Moscow Art Theatre; yet because there is just the two of them on the stage, occasionally given support of musicians Ian Ross and James Gow, it by necessity is first and foremost a story about their relationship. So we see him miss his child being born as he is too consumed by getting an exhibition done in Paris, his disbelief "a man who paints green cows and flying rabbits" at being offered the Commisar of Visual Arts for the Soviet Union. This is life as it is lived but we can't help feeling there is a more interesting story to tell just outside their front door.
Meanwhile Bella scribbles quietly in her notebooks in the corner, left alone to support her child, she is in danger of becoming a supporting player in her own story. This is a shame as Audrey Brisson's performance is without doubt the most beguiling part of the evening. With her bob haircut and doe eyed charms she resembles silent movie star Louise Brooks but her past as a Cirque de Soleil singer comes to the fore in a voice that floats bewitchingly around the beautiful Bristol Old Vic acoustic. No wonder Marc Antolin's painter makes her his muse, her presence is enough to turn anyone into an artist.
This being a Rice show there are always moments of beautiful stagecraft: the lovers angling themselves together to create living representations of the paintings, Bella releasing a balloon souring to the ceiling as her soul does the same on being introduced to Marc. Sitting in the stalls means Sophia Clist's angled wooden design can sometimes require a craning of the neck, this is a show whose best vantage is up high. Much like the show itself which works best when it sends its lovers soaring but unfortunately stays grounded for far too long.
Running Time: 2 hours
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk runs at Bristol Old Vic until 11 June. It then plays at Shakespeare's Globe from 16 June to 2 July before continuing its tour to the Nuffield, Southampton and The Asylum, Cornwall until 31 July.