I LAST saw Kneehigh at its tent base The Asylum, in the home county of Cornwall, in Midnight’s Pumpkin, the crazy adaptation of Cinderella, aimed at folk of all ages, and before that my experience had been outdoors in a couple of villages in Dorset, so I knew roughly what to expect, and was intrigued to see how the work would come across indoors, and in a fairly large auditorium, the main theatre at Salisbury Playhouse.
This play was first devised over 25 years ago, performed by tonight’s director, Emma Rice, and writer Daniel Jamieson, and revised by Rice at Bristol Old Vic a couple of years ago. This version has sold out shows at the delightful Wilton’s Music Hall and spent a few weeks in California before embarking on a UK tour. It is based on the life of Russian artist Marc Chagall, and his wife Bella, the title referring to some of his paintings, in which he carries his wife in the air over a landscape of their hometown of Vitebsk.
Kneehigh is known for physical theatre, and this is no exception. Even though the play covers the October revolution and the horrors of the holocaust, the style of this company also allows for comedy, and we are treated to original, live music from beginning to end, with the two multi-instrumental musicians, composer Ian Ross and James Gow, as much a part of the show as Marc Antolin’s Chagall and Daisy Maywood as his wife. Across an angular set with steep sloping floor, designed by Sophia Clist, these actors bring us episodes from the lives of this couple, and the two leading actors are past masters of their craft, playing very role as skilfully as the main ones, particularly Antolin’s comic portrayal of Bella’s mother. They are both great singers, with beautiful voices which blend perfectly, and some numbers feature the two musicians on vocals as well, making for some highly accurate and very moving four-part harmony.
The intimacy of their style draws us in, and it easy to forget the size of the audience, such is the intensity of their acting and the warmth of piano and cello, and the depth of the subject matter. We are completely enchanted by the story, and hardly notice how relevant are the underlying themes of anti-Semitism and gender equality. From the opening scene, with an elderly Chagall on the telephone to an art critic, through wonderful dance sequences of ballet, jazz, a duet bottle dance straight out of Fiddler on the Roof, moments of high volume and those of silence and pathos, hilarious comedy and deep tragedy, to the final scene, back on the same telephone call as the widowed artist realises from Bella’s writings just how much they shared thoughts and philosophies, we are totally captivated and under their spell.
There are moments of high energy, where nothing on stage is still, contrasting wonderfully with slow, methodical, poignant scenes where time is almost still, but throughout there is the tell-tale sign of detailed, tight, direction, with nothing missed, and nothing out of place. This is beautiful, inclusive theatre at its very, very best, and it continues on tour throughout the UK, including Exeter next month and Cheltenham in May.