First performed last year, as Emma Rice took over the reins at the Globe, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is back at the Bristol Old Vic for a few shows – it will then travel to Edinburgh Festival, before flying all the way over to LA early next year. The 90-minute production blurs the lines of art and theatre, telling the story of Marc and Bella Chagall.
We begin with Marc as an old man, in the middle of a telephone conversation he is stirred to recall his past; it is then that we meet Bella. From the first encounter their connection is immediate and strong, surviving even when Marc shortly leaves for Paris to work on his art. Four years pass before he feels confident enough in his work to return to Russia, all the while planning to marry Bella (if she’ll have him). They are full of hope as their relationship starts anew, but first World War One and then the Russian Revolution complicate matters. Can they keep going as their dreams founder?
Not often can you look at a set of production shots and have absolute confidence that they are a perfect representation of the show you are going to see – but for The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk this certainly is the case. The design stays true to Chagall’s expressionism and use of vivid (and sometimes unexpected) colours, creating a bright and bold world on the stage. Sophia Clist’s design provides a romantic viewpoint of the Chagalls’ life in Russia, as well as some inspired costume choices adding the ideal splash of colour. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design also plays its part, and the show is all the more atmospheric for it.
Additional breathtaking visuals come in the form of Emma Rice and Etta Murfitt’s choreography; the stunning movement connects everything else, gelling the words, backdrop, music and colours together. Ian Ross provides the music (also playing in the show, alongside James Gow), which stays faithful to the era and also the folksy, Jewish influences.
To make a show like this really fly (pun definitely intended), you need to get the casting spot on. Unsurprisingly Kneehigh has pulled another blinder in the partnership of Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson. They are absolutely in sync from start to finish, combining perfectly in voice and movement.
Brisson captures the spirit that fires Bella; even in the times when she feels undervalued (even by Marc) her passion for life drives her on. She is also incredibly agile, manoeuvring herself into all possible angles for the onslaught of choreography. Antolin, as a slightly Welsh-accented Marc Chagall, portrays a man on the cusp of genius – not without his flaws, but very likeable nonetheless. It is a defining performance, as he adeptly balances the elements of comedy and drama to tell the unheard story of one of the 20th century’s key artistic talents.
My verdict? A masterpiece of colour and poetry that would rival the work of Chagall himself, finding a beauty and depth in performance – this is life-affirming stuff.