thu 29/02/2024

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, Bristol Old Vic/Kneehigh/Wise Children online review – ravishing vision of Chagall's early life | reviews, news & interviews

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, Bristol Old Vic/Kneehigh/Wise Children online review – ravishing vision of Chagall's early life

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, Bristol Old Vic/Kneehigh/Wise Children online review – ravishing vision of Chagall's early life

An ingenious depiction of the artist's gravity-defying love

Stratospheric elation: Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson as Marc and Bella ChagallSteve Tanner

One of Marc Chagall’s last commissions was for a stained-glass window in Chichester Cathedral, which channelled his characteristically exuberant spirituality into a response to the verse from Psalm 150, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord”.

One of my earliest cultural memories is going as a schoolgirl to attend the window’s unveiling and seeing for the first time the clashing colours and fusing of folk and experimental art that made him one of the twentieth century’s most distinctive artists.

Emma Rice’s ravishing, colour-saturated production of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk takes us back to the origins of that vision, which was honed through World War I, the Russian Revolution, the birth of modernism in Paris, the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. The production was originally developed with Theatre Alibi under the name Birthday, after the 1915 painting in which Chagall and his first wife Bella take off in an ecstatic physical-law-defying embrace. The show had its Bristol premiere in 2016 under the banner of Kneehigh, which was Rice's calling card at the time, and has toured the world since (it has also been reviewed twice on theartsdesk). 

Here Rice, whose bold interpretations so divided opinion when she was running Shakespeare’s Globe, presents the play in collaboration with her subsequent touring company Wise Children, alongside Bristol Old Vic and Kneehigh. After being live-streamed from December 3-5 it will be available on demand from December 11-18 as part of the theatre’s necessarily innovative response to the placing of Bristol into Tier 3 post-lockdown. 'The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk' about Marc and Bella ChagallThe production is strongly informed by the Klezmer music tradition that formed part of Chagall’s childhood in imperial Russia and ended up being a symbol of Jewish defiance against persecution. Sophia Clist’s ingenious set evokes expressionist art with its drunkenly tilting lines, while the actors and musicians present Chagall and Bella’s fight to survive some of the twentieth century’s most cataclysmic events through haunting song, dialogue, and cleverly choreographed movement.

Marc Antolin (below right) reprises the role of Chagall, while Audrey Brisson is his nightingale-voiced lover and muse, Bella. At a time when the concept of the “muse” is becoming ever more controversial, it is clear that Bella, who had studied philosophy and was a writer, was far more than an idealised abstraction for her husband. Brisson – who has worked with Cirque du Soleil, as well as appearing in the title role for Amélie: The Musical – brings grit to the poetry: we feel her exasperation at her husband’s self-absorption as well as her beguilement. Antolin equally manages the balancing act between dreamy-eyed lover and petulant manchild – it is a tribute to them both that the enchantment of their gravity-resistant love is sustained so powerfully.

Marc Antolin as Marc ChagallScriptwriter Daniel Jamieson has pulled off an extraordinary feat in making this feel like an intensely personal evening at the same time as it chronicles the most turbulent political shifts of the first half of the last century. There is no over-simplification here; the piece manages to feel as profound as it is elliptical, whether the topic is Chagall’s early experiences of anti-Semitism or the convoluted politics which led to his displacement by Malevich as a preferred artist of the Russian government.

Etta Murfitt and Emma Rice’s skilful choreography is central to an evening that deftly recreates Chagall’s aesthetic through scenes in which the lovers contort themselves seemingly effortlessly to echo his paintings. There's a particularly telling moment after Bella has just given birth to their daughter. Chagall, at first selfishly absorbed in his forthcoming exhibition, connects with the baby by making her wings from a book. It’s a beautiful image, but it comes with a kick, as Bella checks the wings afterwards and realises, with irritation, that they are crafted from notes she has been making.

Rice writes in the programme about Chagall and Bella’s story as “a show that is a patchwork of so many lives, loves, hopes and dreams”. It looks as if it would be extraordinary as a live experience, but the ingenuity of the way in which it is both presented and filmed makes it equally a thrillingly original and powerfully engaging way to spend a pre-Christmas night at home.

  • The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk available as livestream tonight, and to download from 11-18 Dec at
  • Read more reviews on theartsdesk


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