Saturday, 12 May 2018


Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, 9th to 12th May
(, for the fleet of foot, still on tonight!)

The Brighton Festival programme describes this play as “trac[ing] the lives of” Marc Chagall “the 20th century’s most influential Jewish artist and his wife as they navigate the Pogroms, the Russian Revolution, and each other.”

Kneehigh’s production is perhaps faultless. The dialogue’s sharp and memorable without being showy. The two leads, particularly Audrey Brisson as the wife Bella Rosenfeld, are strong. The active physical-theatre style conveys the feeling of Chagall’s artwork, where everything feels free-floating, as if in some grand dance, without resorting to mere mimicry. Different lighting styles and some minimal props cross a simple set, aided by two on-stage musicians, propelling the drama along.

Under the hood, however, there’s some problems...

Chagall is characterised as an idealist innocent, too unworldly to kiss his future bride on their first date, yet also possessed of a child’s innate selfishness. He’s given the look of a silent film star, a Harold Lloyd hat above a hapless white face. I know almost nothing of his personality, and it’s quite possible he was something like this – a naive man whose medium was naive art. But in dramatic terms it seems a somewhat cliched way to portray an artist.

Moreover, the elliptical structure might have been necessary to span the story but serves to make his frequent acts of selfishness towards Bella seem consequenceless, a character quirk, a fact of life to be accepted.

The play starts with a critic on the phone, feeding Marc vast chunks of verbiage in the earnest hope he’ll simply agree. Nonplussed and unengaged he lets the phone dangle to show the audience a photo of his home town of Vitebsk. A town, he explains, largely destroyed by Nazis in the War. Later he expresses frustration at the notion there’s a “mystery” to his art.

The inference of course is that his art is rooted where he was rooted, in Vitebsk, and so the phone is not just asking him the wrong questions but the wrong sort of questions. But this doesn’t lead into perhaps the central question about Chagall. To create his folk image of Vitebsk did he need distance from the physical Vitebsk, that his heart might grow so fond? He once said “my homeland exists only in my soul”. And ironically given his evocations of home his art was always most appreciated outside of Russia, where his cows and fiddlers seemed exotic.

After all, pre-warVitebskmayhave been historic and picturesque but it was not the rustic village hiswork sometimes made it seem. He describes it as having two cathedrals and numerous synagogues, and even today it’s Belarus’ fourth largest city.

The question’s not a simple one. His style first developed when he went to Paris. Yet he was back in Vitebsk between 1914 and 1920, and painting prolifically. Though he only stayed home so long because the outbreak of war prevented his return to Paris.

Bella, it’s revealed, was a writer and actor in her own right. (I’d previously seen her only as a figure who showed up in his paintings, so I suppose I’m no better than the Incels.) But the play seems divided over how to treat her. In the Festival quote above, it’s clear that “each other” is saved for last because it’s the most important, that the Pogroms and Revolutions are like sudden gusts of wind which blow their relationship this way and that. At it’s heart, this is a love story.

When Marc was first developing his art in Paris Bella remained home. Later, in a cruelirony, just like Vitebsk the war killed her. (She got an infection, which would have been curable had medicine not been in short supply.) All of which suggests she was a metonym of Vitebsk for him, personalising all it meant.

Yet she describes them as opera glasses, looking at the same things in parallel. When they are forced to leave Vitebsk, she says they should pack their memories like suitcases. In this way she’s not his muse or subject, but they are companion eyes.

It is of course entirely possible that this division isn’t the plays – that Marc saw their relationship one way and Bella the other. But then that would make for something to explore. There are some stabs at this. When Bella briefly resumes acting she fills with life, while he essentially sulks in a chair. Yet these aren’t quite sufficient. As Marc and Bella navigate each other, the view turns most towards his opera glass.

Brighton Dome, Wed 9th May

This double-headliner was due to Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier having been commissioned by contemporary ensemble Stargaze to score a reworking of Fugazi’s classic ’In On the Kill Taker’. Introducing the night in his customary angsty outsider artist persona, Saunier was keen to stress that the whole notion was preposterous – he’d no idea how to transpose from hardcore punk to classical instruments, he’d never even heard the album before and besides that he’d be scoring each number for a solo instrument.

The last one might have been a chess move too far. It’s true that a single instrument score isn’t the same thing as a rock solo. And even when, for the most part, you couldn’t work out which track was being cited, the point of the exercise was to change things not reproduce them. But while Fugazi might have contained great songwriters, what really made them stellar was how well they worked as a unit – they gelled, like few others.

And in fact it was the few, brief ensemble sections which worked the best. The solo pieces sounded fragmentary. It was as if we were hundreds of years hence, where only snippets of the original had survived, perhaps from some almost unplayable LP, so we were effectively trying to reconstruct an ancient culture from some broken bits of pot.

I can go for this sort of thing, whether it’s Steve Reich reworking Radiohead or Phillip Glass channelling Bowie. But this was perhaps an example of the problem of postmodern art, where all things are supposed to be of equal value, and exchanging them seems the best way of conveying that. Whereas all that happens is that everything is made to seem equally valueless.

I wondered how Deerhoof’s lo-fi aesthetic would fare at the far-from-intimate Dome venue. And their characteristic on-stage line-up, screwing with the heraldic rock formation by actually lining everyone up, including the drummer, looked stranger still on the large stage. But the illfittingness actually fitted. There were several technical hitches, including Satomi Matzusaki’s vocal mike cutting out at an inopportune moment, causing her to break into an impromptu dance routine while Saunier sang into his miked-up snare. 

But it all just added to the ramshackle exuberance of the thing. It felt almost like going back to the early Sixties, before dedicated music venues, where bands just played wherever they could.

There’s little more to say about their sound, which is going further in the same direction as their last appearance three years ago. For both better and worse, they’re becoming more of a band. Real rock licks break in at times!

For the encore, they were joined by four of Stargaze’s wind players. Which worked so well you only wished they’d done it for more of the set. For the first, slower number their contribution enriched the melody, like fizzy sparkly pop has been transubstantiated into fine wine.

As ever, not from Brighton…

Royal Festival Hall, London, Fri 4th May

“37 record store clerks feared dead in Yo La Tengo concert disaster”, ran the Onion headline. 
And the band are seen by some as the eptiome of suburban indie, music for the self-styled sensitive souls who read Nick Hornby books. There may not be an entire absence of truth to this description, they even crack a joke about playing for themselves while in the interval a few trainspotters rushed to the front to check out the equipment.

Yet it’s more to do with having a handy example to attach to a phenomenon. And it’s probably made easier by the band’s music being much less pindownable. Since 1984 they’ve been producing, in Wikipedia’s words, an “eclectic combination of folk, punk rock,shoe-gazing, long instrumental noise-jams, and electronic music.”

This night kicks off with a spacy drone which builds into a motorik trance-out, with double drumming despite the band only being a trio. Always a good way of getting my attention. And the first half’s set was mostly devoted to unadorned melodies, the percussion on one track being no more than the odd tap on the bass.

True, every now and again it does start to sound like easy listening for snowflakes, as if the magic potion failed to kick in. But for the majority of the time songs tasted like home cooking, made from a handful of simple ingredients but leaving a lasting taste. Free-form instruments surrounded the songs, sometimes brief interludes allowing band members to switch instruments, sometimes longer. One psychedelic number effectively combined both.

I’m not a fan of splitting gigs in half. It’s like putting an ad break in a film then not even showing any ads. But they use the two halfs to switch over, taking things in a more uptempo direction. Though tracks remained unhurried affiars, until the final few numbers. Whereupon the band who’d earlier mastered slow-tempo compositions suddenly transformed into a rock-out combo, instruments taking off in their hands like the Pink Panther clutching a raging outboard motor.

I was even able to cope with the guitar solos, partly because the rhythm section was more than merely the bread in the sandwich, and partly because the guitar would get genuinely unhinged. Only the extended guitar of the finale taxed my patience.

They had to huddle together before taking the encore, as if it had come as an unexpected development. Whereupon they covered the TVP’s ’Park Time Punks’.

Overall, colour me a record store clerk.

Not from London...

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