The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
Bristol Old Vic via bristololdvic.org.uk
Reviewed – 4th December 2020
“as vibrant as Chagall’s paintings but made more enchanting by the truly endearing performances”
Although Marc Chagall is often referred to as the ‘quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century’, Chagall preferred to see himself as representing “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”. A bold claim from one who was raised and immersed in his Jewish culture, but one that is justified. His work transcended the canvas and the artistic movements he helped shape, as he became involved in theatre, set and costume design; even painting the ceiling of the ‘Opéra Garnier’ in Paris. But he is best known for his varied repertoire of images that include melancholy clowns, flying lovers, fiddlers on roofs, circus performers and musicians. They are flights of fancy, which is why a dramatic celebration and portrayal of his life is such an attractive challenge for Emma Rice.
When it opened at the Bristol Old Vic in 2016, “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” was Rice’s swansong for ‘Kneehigh’, although her love affair with the show goes back much further. And it is to the Old Vic that it returns, in association with both Kneehigh and ‘Wise Children’. A two-hander, although frequently supplemented by the musicians, it is as vibrant as Chagall’s paintings but made more enchanting by the truly endearing performances from Marc Antolin (as Chagall) and Audrey Brisson as his muse and wife, Bella. Antolin and Brisson together capture both the ecstasy and the cracks in their life together. They are not just flying lovers but fleeing lovers too – escaping the anti-Semitism that swept through Europe. Yet it avoids the panoramic perspective and focuses more on the intricate brush strokes of the lovers’ lives, and the personal sacrifices they make for each other.
The piece is a wonderful amalgam of dialogue, reflection, music and movement; and they all work beautifully together. Daniel Jamieson’s script is peppered with intimate detail that can reveal a lifetime of emotions within a few short words, accentuated by Rice’s inventive staging. Ian Ross’s heart-rending score is a constant undercurrent that bursts to the surface with its leitmotifs; seamlessly taking over when words alone are not enough. Yet it is the central performances of the two actors, and their onstage chemistry, that draw us in. Like Pierrot and Columbine their physicality becomes an extra language, to say nothing of their gorgeous singing voices.
This is a rare gem of a piece of theatre. Seldom does humour and magic sit so comfortably alongside poignancy and heartache. Chagall’s success in Berlin and Paris is shadowed by wartime persecution of the Jews: their culture is celebrated here, but we are also reminded of the fact that we are witnessing a culture that was ravaged. But above all, we are sharing a love story and this show is a celebration of that, as well as the artist. More than uplifting; you can see why these lovers are flying.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Steve Tanner
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
Live broadcasts from Bristol Old Vic until 5th December then streaming from 11th – 18th December via bristololdvic.org.uk
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