The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (review)

The pressure was high and the colours were bright as Emma Rice painted the final strokes of her career as Artistic Director of the the internationally acclaimed Kneehigh. In an innovative explosion of music, balloons, paint-brushes, banners, torches, choreography and confetti, this production ironically may not be anything new from the company’s renowned style, but this jagged love story does not fail to charm and enchant.

Rice weaves and stitches together the realms of reality and fairy-tale in Daniel Jamieson’s The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. Centred on the Jewish Russo-French artist Marc Chagall, and his wife Bella as they catapult through the highs and lows of the early 20th century, the works of Chagall are transferred to a spectacular theatrical aesthetic. With a design by Sophia Clist making clever use of ropes and off-kilter angles, the creative team brings to life the dynamic relationship of this off-kilter couple.

The lighting design brought this set into dazzling definition. Chagallian combinations of colour make this passionate production as pretty as his pictures. Although the show’s emphasis was not on the works of Chagall specifically, the pace of the production would have benefited from a prior knowledge of his art in order to identify the subtleties of their physical and creative references. The clarity of the storytelling still enabled a characterful means of introductory access to his paintings and inspirations.

Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson, who play the eponymous couple, work fantastically in tandem. They harmonise both in voice, movement and character. Antolin creates an endearingly eccentric impression of Chagall.  His cheeky smile and Welsh intonation, despite jarring against the Eastern European cultural backdrop, allows for the storytelling process to flourish at the heart of the tale.  A special mention must go to Brisson, whose training with Cirque du Soleil certainly blossoms, with spine-chilling vocals soaring above the upper-ranges and then across the many languages touched upon in the score, glistening with Amelie-esque charisma.

Ian Ross composes and performs an entirely original score which severely interlocks with the stage action, executed faultlessly by two actor-musicians. This beckons the on-stage pace when it slows, sensitively combining Jewish and Russian influences with the tinkering riffs of a fairytale.

A total running time of two hours is brief to tell a balanced tale of the individuals in the melting pot of their revolutionary historical context. Moments of tension between the lovers in their artistic disparities did seem glossed over, with almost nonsensical resolutions. Luckily, the quality of this gloss was elegant in style, leaving a feeling of achieving a lot in a little, an extravagance synonymous with Kneehigh.

The action was obvious, but the clearly interacting creative elements made it a show to be universally enjoyed. The style was not a reinvention of Kneehigh, but rather an epitome of its prime. This simple story may not have provoked food for thought further than its own world, but it reaffirmed that nothing is more spellbinding than the telling of a tale.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk magically portrays the trials of being an artist in the crossovers between muses and inspiration, love and reality and how they interlink with artistic expression. Not only does the subject matter strike a personal note with Emma Rice as a director, but this piece acts as a farewell love song; Rice herself was one of the flying lovers in the original Theatre Alibi production, after all.

With Rice’s Kneehigh socks fully pulled up, having completed a full-circled cycle ending where she began, we can now only shift in our seats, waiting with wide-eyed anticipation for her to spin Shakespeare’s Globe.

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