DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer: Daniel Jamieson

Director: Emma Rice

Reviewer: Jay Nuttall

“I want to waste the rest of my life with you,” Bella tells her husband, Marc – and for a short time, we are invited to waste some of our time with them too. Of course, not a second is wasted in Kneehigh’s exquisite The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.

This eccentric and eclectic ode to love and art was first conceived and performed in 1992 by young and in love actors, Emma Rice and Daniel Jamieson. It is the biography of Russian artist Marc Chagall and his wife, Bella. Revisiting the show a quarter of a century later and no longer partners director Emma Rice and writer Daniel Jamieson display all of their theatrical expertise to revive a piece of theatre buzzing with inventiveness.

Marc and Bella Chagall fell in love, in their hometown of Vitebsk in Belarus in 1909. Avoiding conscription into the Russian army during the First World War, Marc and Bella became stuck in St Petersburg before his artistic career began to flourish amidst the backdrop of the Russian revolution. Being Jewish in Eastern Europe was not safe and with a reputation beginning to grow abroad and with a baby daughter, Ida, they decided to move away from their ‘Motherland’. Living in exile from 1922 this piece charts the Chagall’s struggle for an artistic life against the backdrop of a fast-changing Europe with the rise of fascism. 

“I feel like a clown,” Marc tells Bella at one point in the production. “You look like one” she retorts. And he does – they both do. This is a piece of theatre that falls in between so many genres: mime, clown, music hall, physical, European, even silent picture. It is like watching a painting being created in theatrical form – broad brushstrokes in one moment and the minutest detail the next. The style is a theatrical representation of Chagall’s artistic work – surreal, expressionistic and abstract yet with a great beauty at its heart.

At the centre of the piece are two wonderful performances by Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood as Marc and Bella. With whitened faces like mime artists, they tell the love story through movement, clowning, narration and beautifully delicate singing voices. Most of the singing is in Yiddish adding to the overall abstract nature of the piece. Joining the two actors onstage are two multi-instrumentalist musicians (James Gow and Ian Ross) who score the entire piece as well as cropping up very occasionally to add an extra voice into scenes or swell the onstage harmonies. Rice has created a very instant, collaborative type of theatre-making that only requires suggestions of detail to make a whole picture.

Sophia Clist’s design needs no explanation as it takes everything it needs directly from Chagall’s work itself. The set, consisting of a raised square wooden platform positioned on an angle, is surrounded by the occasional hanging prop – a telephone, a bucket, a clock and, at one point a tiny miniature locomotive used to deliver a letter onto the stage. The lighting design by Malcolm Rippeth occasionally floods the stage with vibrant rainbow colours and at other times stark open white. Every artistic decision made in this production is made with one eye on Chagall’s paintings.

Although at times there is a sense of euphoria and a wash of love there are moments within the piece that hint at darker moments in their relationship. Marc’s flippancy at arriving to see his daughter for the first time four days after being born because he was arranging an exhibition or his refusal to help his wife’s family when their house and business is being destroyed because he feels the urge to paint complicates an audience’s investment into a character we so enjoy living on the stage. There is also a moment when, while living in Moscow, Marc’s idealism and diversion into politics slightly detracts from the love story we are so desperate to continue following.

Kneehigh are renowned for their theatrical inventiveness and willingness to push an audience’s boundaries in the theatre. Their shows are always full of heart and extraordinary skill and this is no exception. The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk will almost have you flying out of the theatre.

Runs until 24 March 2018 | Image: Steve Tanner

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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