It’s just as well that the Bristol Old Vic have built up some form with livestreaming stage productions over the last few months and have notably worked closely with Emma Rice’s Wise Children company to bring us memorable shows via the internet. The revival of The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk was initially planned as a live show (with streaming) to start as soon as Lockdown2 finished a few days ago. But then Bristol found itself placed in Tier 3 and, therefore, the Old Vic Theatre was not allowed to open. Nothing daunted, everything was changed to online only; the company had been in a bubble and are therefore still able to interact live. And so, there are a limited number of livestreams this week and a filmed version for on demand viewing becomes available next weekend.
So that’s the backdrop….what about the show? I had begun this online theatre week by watching John Logan’s two hander Red about American painter Mark Rothko so it seemed a good way to complete an artistic circle by finishing with this two hander show about Russian painter Marc Chagall. Both Mark/Marcs were near contemporaries, both of Jewish heritage and both shook up the art world. Vitebsk (split it into two syllables after the “t”) was Chagall’s hometown and also that of the love of his life and muse Bella Rosenfeld. The play narrates how they come together, marry, outlive both World Wars, pogroms and the Russian Revolution and finally find fame in exile. Even so Vitebsk and its memories loom large in their lives; Bella’s book about the town, Burning Lights, was published posthumously and Chagall’s paintings invariably reference the location. The ever present notion of the town in this show is also reinforced by the haunting music of Ian Ross, played by himself and James Gow who occasionally join the two main performers on stage to perform minor roles.
Marc and Bella are played (as they were in the show’s original incarnation) by Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson; they wear the roles like a second skin. Antolin has something of the ruefulness of Chaplin or Keaton about him with precise delicate movements and a deadpan expression. Brisson is rather more animated (as probably Bella was to Chagall) and lithe; both have delightful singing voices. With the two of them making use of some gigantic props and made up in white face, tribute is also paid to the European clowning tradition – Chagall was quite obsessed with the circus. They occasionally break out of character to play other roles (Antolin, for instance, plays Bella’s pessimistic mother) but in the main it is just the two of them which is probably how the real couple felt about themselves during their relationship.
Unlike Red we see nothing of Chagall’s actual art although the genius of director Emma Rice is to reference them throughout in the often contorted poses into which she puts her actors. The characters are (mostly) dressed in the clothes shown in one of Chagall’s most famous works The Birthday and, of course, the title of Daniel Jamieson’s play references this and other similar works; indeed, the original title of the piece was Birthday. So even if we don’t see the paintings, they are ever present. The rest of the set is an abstract collection of sticks (paint brush handles??) designed by Sophia Clist and used to represent multiple locations in Russia, France and the USA. Staging is kept extremely simple with just a few chairs although there is an interesting design on the stage floor which is captured occasionally by an aerial camera which gives us an interesting Chagallian perspective on things.
The tone of the play was far more wistful and melancholy than I had expected with rather a sad air about it. Although I’ve already said the play is about Chagall’s art it isn’t really – it’s more of a love story between the two main protagonists and although I wouldn’t describe the relationship as tortuous (they have the occasional disagreement) it becomes an examination of how they become co-dependent and remain infatuated with each other as the years pass. Bella’s death devastates Chagall (though he did marry again) and she continued to be his inspiration for the rest of his career. While I could fully appreciate and admire the skill and stagecraft with which the story was told I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed it. I longed to see some of the offstage unfolding events which kept being mentioned but having looked at the general critical reception for the piece I know I’m in a bit of a minority there. Viewed as simply a love story it fulfils its brief, I just felt I wanted something more but then as Chagall himself once said: “In art, as in life, everything is possible, if it is based on love”
The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk is available via the Wise Children website – click here
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