The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk

Traverse Theatre

Until August 27

The Whip Hand

Traverse Theatre

Until August 27

How To Act


Until August 27

Reviewed by Mark Brown

PHYSICAL theatre tends to be one of the strong suits of the Edinburgh Fringe. Sad to say, however, that two of the big names in the art form flatter to deceive this year.

The great Russian company Derevo celebrates the 20th anniversary of its Fringe debut with the one-man show Last Clown On Earth (Pleasance Courtyard until August 28). Sadly, however, for all performer Anton Adasinky's technical skill, the over-employed video projections expose the piece as a multi-performer work trapped inside a monodrama.

Meanwhile, Translunar Paradise (Pleasance Courtyard until August 28) by acclaimed English group Theatre Ad Infinitum, also falls short. Although physically accomplished and musically inventive, this sometimes touching reflection on bereavement and loneliness in old age suffers from repetition and a surfeit of sentimentality.

There are no such problems in The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk by the excellent, Cornwall-based company Kneehigh, in association with Bristol Old Vic. Having impressed mightily with the total theatre of their Tristan & Yseult at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre back in May, Kneehigh are wowing audiences with this revival of a drama (initially entitled Birthday) about the love affair between the great, Jewish painter Marc Chagall and his wife, the writer Bella Rosenfeld.

Although very much a textual work, built around a clean, crisp biographical play by Daniel Jamieson, the piece comes to life through Kneehigh's trademark combination of physical theatre and live music. Performed on a charmingly simple set, which evokes the semi-ruralism of the couple's hometown of Vitebsk (a city of the Russian Empire which sits in present day Belarus), it portrays a place with a thriving, if always precarious, Jewish community; prior to the Second World War (in which the city was razed to the ground), it had some 60 synagogues.

We see the Chagalls as they navigate their relationship through tempestuous times. Following a long separation (while Marc makes his name in Paris), they marry in Vitebsk, face the outbreak of the First World War, move to St Petersburg, have a daughter (Ida), and witness two revolutions in a year (in February and October 1917).

The love affair endures the almost inevitable tension between Chagall's dedication to his art and his commitment to his wife. It also survives the rancid anti-Semitism of the old Russia, which persists even as the new, Bolshevik state (initially) embraces both Chagall and his paintings.

It is a fascinating story, told beautifully in lovely choreography and simple, evocative song and live music (played by Ian Ross and James Gow). Director Emma Rice's enchanting production has the intelligence to avoid direct recourse to the imagery of Chagall's paintings.

The piece is captivating, in both visual and emotional terms, thanks to superb choreography, which is executed with delightful physical dexterity by Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson. It is such elements that elevate Kneehigh's work high above the average, and enable this production to soar like the flying lovers of the title.

Also at the Traverse is Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell's latest drama The Whip Hand. Directed for Birmingham Rep and the Traverse by Tessa Walker, the piece is an uneasy marriage of comedy and political theatre.

Boasting a strong cast (which includes Jonathan Watson and rising star Joanne Thomson), the play centres on a sometimes very funny comic situation; self-effacing, part-time supermarket worker Dougie (Watson) is celebrating his birthday at the des res of his ex-wife Arlene (Louise Ludgate) and her very middle-class, very liberal lover Lorenzo (Richard Conlon). The academic achievements of Arlene and Dougie's daughter Molly (Thomson) are also being toasted.

Resentments, jealousies and recriminations (those staples of dark, domestic comedies) abound. However, courtesy of Dougie and nephew Aaron (Michael Abubakar), whose mysteriously absent father is of African descent, we are soon, and dubiously, plunged into the genocidal history of the African slave trade and the undeniable, shameful role of Scots within it.

Dougie's speech, delivered with appropriate (and, it transpires, sinister) diffidence and earnestness by Watson, has a power that resides in its subject, rather than its dramatic context. Indeed, as the play goes on, one feels that, although well-intentioned, Maxwell has over-estimated his ability to shoehorn such a huge and important issue into what is, effectively, a sitcom.

The play is built, not of characters, but of caricatures. Which is fine for delivering a Glaswegian comedy of social class, but ill-suited to the essential truths of Scottish culpability in one of the most immense crimes in human history.

There is a more subtle, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to broach the anguished and imbalanced relations between Europe and Africa in Graham Eatough's How To Act. Directed by its author for the National Theatre of Scotland, the piece portrays a masterclass in which an imagined English theatre master, Anthony Nicholl (Robert Goodale), finds himself facing uncomfortable questions from his student, Promise (Jade Ogugua), a young Londoner of Nigerian descent.

"Monsters", as American dramatist Adriano Shaplin once wrote, "make for poor theatre." Nicholl's naive, exoticist talk about the female dancers he encountered in the Niger Delta mark him out early and easily as a hopelessly misguided white liberal. This fact is reinforced by Promise's discourse about the environmental and social disasters visited upon southern Nigeria by the multinational oil companies.

Despite its intriguing, theatrical situation, the play descends too soon and too firmly into polemic. Indeed, as the personal and political start to combine, Eatough reveals the secret of his play long before he intends to.

* This article has been corrected to clarify that the director of The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk is Emma Rice