The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
by Daniel Jamieson
Directed by Emma Rice
Composer / Music Director: Ian Ross
Designer: Sophie Clist
Choreography: Emma Rice & Etta Murfitt
Lighting design: Malcolm Rippeth
Sound design: Simon Baker
A Kneehigh / Bristol Old Vic Production
On Tour: Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
5th July 2016
Marc Antolin … Marc Chagall
Audrey Brisson … Bella Chagall
Ian Ross … Musician (piano, accordion, balaika)
James Gow … Musician (cello, trumpet)
We were about to book this at the Wanamaker Playhouse when we realized it was starting its tour in Southampton immediately after the Wanamaker Playhouse run. It’s Emma Rice’s Kneehigh farewell production after 20 years, as she took her place as artistic director of The Globe (which is why it went to the Wanamaker Playhouse) As we’ll be seeing a lot of Emma Rice productions, no doubt, we wanted to see a pre-Globe example.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is based on Marc Chagall and Bella Chagall, running from their meeting in Russia in Vitebsk, to St Petersburg in the First World War, anti- Jewish pogroms, and to Moscow in the revolution, then back to Vitebsk to start an art school. That run through Russian history takes us up to the interval. The very short second part takes us from Vitebsk as everything goes wrong to the USA where Bella died during World War II.
It’s hard to describe, but I don’t usually bother to credit lighting and sound, as here. It’s a mixture of narrative theatre, singing (so a semi-musical), dance, mime, classic theatricality, Harlequinade almost, drama, comedy with a poignant ending.
Audrey Brisson & Marc Antolin
Our two principle actors, Marc Antolin as Marc Chagall, and Audrey Brisson as Bella Chagall are engaging, charming, funny, sad, exciting. Both are tremendous performances enhanced by their extreme difference in height.
The style tends to single narrative to the audience with multiple short scenes telling a true story … a European drama style rather than an English one. There is interaction, but much is semi-dance, entwining, as well as dialogue. We heard a teacher telling the kids to watch for ‘the Brechtian bits.’
By classic theatricality, I mean things like sitting on a chair with puppet legs replacing your own, or in one superb scene, Marc Chagall is describing a Rabbi, which is a painting with holes for Bella’s arms to gesticulate, and a pair of boots below. Or it’s Marc acting a dialogue between himself and his brother-in-law, Yakov, by turning his head 180 degrees and putting a hat on and off. Or Bella, silhouetted through the backdrop moving and acting out a speech in Russian (she sings in French earlier) in the Moscow Jewish Theatre where Chagall painted scenery.
Marc Antolin as Marc Chagall, Audrey Brisson as Bella in silhouette
The production is full of it, lots of tiny coups de theatre. With so much movement and flashes of comedy, it’s astonishing how poignant Bella’s death is.
Then we have the constantly changing colourful lighting plot, and the sound design … there’s always something happening aurally, but I did wonder if the dripping water into a bucket was the same sound effect recrding the same sound designer used in The Caretaker at the Old Vic earlier in the year. No, sound design was superb. Humming, ticking, dripping … constant accompaniment.
Audrey Brisson as Bella Chagall
The music varied between Russian-Jewish dance, to 1920s popular to 1940s torch songs, to semi-operatic. There was also some minimalist piano and cello work … a highly effective combination of instruments, but so was accordion and trumpet at other points. The two “Musicians” were involved in handing over letters, taking props, doing the odd line (Are you a Jew? during the pogrom sequence).
A wonderfully theatrical evening. We came home and went to get out the books with Chagall paintings.
It was a joy also to see the Nuffield two-thirds full, packed with teenagers admittedly, but that meant whoops and long applause. We haven’t had to sit that far back in years, and I was reminded of how difficult those ultra-low, soft armchair seats are. I recall when the Nuffield switched to them, at least two decades ago, when a three hour Shakespeare cost me three osteopath visits. I realized I would have been more comfortable on a backless Wanamaker Playhouse wooden bench!
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