Review: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (Wilton's Music Hall)

Emma Rice’s production runs at Wilton’s before embarking on a UK tour

This is theatre to make the heart soar and the soul sing: inventive, playful, joyous, sexy, a bit crazy and entirely heart-rending. This partially recast revival of the 2016 Sam Wanamaker Playhouse success is a timely reminder – as the Globe lets her go and her new company Wise Children launches – of what a delightfully off-the-wall genius director Emma Rice is.

Inspired by the Marc Chagall paintings of a blissfully gravity-defying couple, which were in turn inspired by the overwhelming love between Chagall and his writer wife Bella, this Kneehigh production is an exquisite, dizzying fusion of text, music, dance and ravishing spectacle. The concise but surprisingly rich script is by Daniel Jamieson, while the music (Ian Ross and James Gow, as fundamental to the show as the two actors), movement (Rice again, in conjunction with Etta Murfitt) and design (Sophia Clist with Malcolm Rippeth’s beautiful lighting) all combine to create an enchanting, entrancing whole that defies categorisation. It’s almost unbearably gorgeous to look at – the angularity of Chagall’s landscapes and the gothic pallor of his subjects’ faces are skilfully evoked – but it also has considerable substance.

It’s a meditation on art, memory and love yet it’s far from worthy and precious. It’s a big-hearted, robust, frequently hilarious distillation of both of the Chagall’s lives and works. Due to their Judaism, the Chagalls became refugees as anti-Semitism swept through Europe and the piece acquires an unwelcome timeliness due to that. It also recalls Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday In The Park With George at times as Bella struggles to penetrate her husband’s artistic self-absorption with her concerns about their relationship and finances. But it is punctuated by moments of theatrical invention (witness the way that their Jewish wedding dance is presented, or the depiction of an ancient rabbi who became the subject of a Chagall portrait) that take the breath away.

The actors are stunningly good. Marc Antolin is glorious as Chagall: infuriating, adorable, neurotic, impressively athletic, and also doubles hilariously as Bella’s grief-stricken, barely coherent mother. Daisy Maywood invests Bella with a fierce intelligence, gamine charm and a dancer's lithe physicality. It is almost impossible to tear one's eyes away from her. They both sing like angels, have tremendous chemistry, and portray the ageing of the characters with a simplicity and subtle ingenuity that should be shown to drama students everywhere as an object lesson in acting.

This is one of those rare, beautiful pieces of stagecraft that reminds you why you love theatre so much but may also find you googling Marc Chagall’s painting and Bella Chagall’s writing. A triumph.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk runs at Wilton's Music Hall until 10 February and then tours.