Confession: I have an aversion to (linear) streamed theatre because it reminds me too much of what I’m not experiencing as live performance. Emma Rice’s The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk may have just cured me, however.
This two-hander love story of Marc and Bella Chagall set against the constant tumult of the first half of the 20th century – starting in Belorussian Vitebsk (part of Imperial Russia at the time) and ending in the United States after years of persecution, war and forced emigration – is an intimate and engrossing domestic epic. Every aspect of its staging – from costuming to lighting to set design and prop choices – is inspired, economical and captivating. The production’s musicality and choreography are delicious in both their simplicity but breathtaking difficulty that both actors impressively land. Marc Antolin (Marc Chagall) delivers an athletic wedding dance that caused me to audibly whoop in amazement even though I was watching on a laptop whilst reclining alone. Audrey Brisson’s (Bella Chagall) singing voice soars with pitch-perfect precision and I found myself applauding the computer screen. As a cast, they gel and are convincing in dialogue as well as wonderfully physical and engaging performers. Whilst the cast is multi-talented and music is woven throughout the production, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is not a musical. Through these elements, it feels alive to all the senses and immersive – something I didn’t think previously possible via streaming.
Many an artist’s life has long been source material for playwrights. Marc Chagall’s status, longevity and prolificity alone would qualify him for theatrical biographical treatment. On the other hand, the story of a penniless painter from a Hassidic family marrying one of the richest young women in the city – a city once filled with culture and architecture with a majority Jewish population that was razed to the ground by the Nazis – is also the stuff of drama. Playwright Daniel Jamieson has, however, focused his story around the relationship of Marc and Bella: the flying lovers depicted in many of M. Chagall’s legendary paintings. The treatment is tender but not saccharine; with plenty of focus on Bella’s perspective, talents and ambitions rather than as merely the painter’s wife. This authorial choice is refreshing and enriching because Bella is a rich and intriguing character. Her singing in Yiddish, beautifully and hauntingly, adds more texture as does the physicality of Brisson’s performance – in all movements especially in sync with Antolin’s. Emma Rice, who originally starred as Bella in the first 1992 production, not only directs but also co-choreographs alongside Etta Murfitt. The ownership and dedication to connecting the audience by every means possible – even when intermediated by a camera’s lens and a viewing screen – shows.
This production of Kneehigh and the Bristol Old Vic, ably photographed, mixed and transmitted, by Wise Children bears no hallmarks of ‘making do’. It, like its subjects and their works, is uncompromisingly beautiful to behold.
Review by Mary Beer
Perhaps you’ve seen them floating over a Russian village? Or perhaps you’ve seen her toppling forward, arms full of wildflowers, as he arches above her head and steals a kiss.
Meet Marc and Bella Chagall—the flying lovers of Vitebsk! Partners in life and on canvas, Marc and Bella are immortalised as the picture of romance. But whilst on canvas they flew, in life they walked through some of the most devastating times in history.
Bristol Old Vic, Kneehigh and Wise Children present
Kneehigh’s The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
Written by Daniel Jamieson
Directed by Emma Rice; music by Ian Ross; Set and Costume design: Sophia Clist; Lighting design: Malcolm Rippeth; Sound design: Simon Baker; Choreography: Etta Murfitt.