Tuesday 20th March 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse
In many ways, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk defies description; much like the comical opening exchange points out – a scene which sees our protagonist bombarded with convoluted attempts to describe his work with words; visual art is extremely difficult to capture in this way. Based on the story of an artist (Marc Chagall) and the love of his life, the production takes shape – much as I’d like to avoid the cliché – as a painting brought to life, with all the movement suggested by an angle or a colour given release into song, dance and dialogue. It’s a slight departure from the famed boisterousness or grand scale of Kneehigh’s work, but the classic inventiveness is lovingly bestowed upon this story as with all the others. Emma Rice directs and tells us of the tender connection she feels for the piece in the programme – having been the original Bella to writer Daniel Jamieson’s Marc when the play premiered in the 90s, the affection felt by the creators for the piece feels very much woven into the fabric of the production. While conflict and frictions do play a part, the production seeks first and foremost to celebrate the joy of the rush of new love; to capture the euphoria of falling – and flying, for that matter – with surreal, sophisticated staging.Marc Chagall falls for Bella when they are young and full of boundless hopes and energy – the play follows their story to explore how the world outside can test the most devoted of lovers. Bella treats us to a lyrical telling of the tale of their meeting and the pair begin to bring the playful, energetic and sensual choreography from Rice and Etta Murfitt into play. Ever wonderful with physical storytelling, this Kneehigh production uses everything in reach from the compact stage space to unravel the narrative. Sophia Clist’s set design offers a partitioned, cubic screen to support shadow cloth sequences and shifting hues of colour used as backdrops to the unfolding passions.At first glance, the stage is small and simplistic – but it’s an illusion of course, for the Kneehigh magic is harboured in a variety of well hidden cubby holes or more impressively, in plain sight but with canny disguise. Characters are conjured with simple inventiveness and the production delights in proving that a two hander suffers no restrictions in depicting lively scenes involving a wider circle of characters when the company has such wonderful imagination. The severe rake of the stage allows the tender choreographed scenes between the pair to be fully visible to all while Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting picks up on the heavy motif of the story being told in all the shades of a painter’s pallete, with each experience accompanied by a new incarnation of a recognisable pastel. That said, there are some plot points which feel incongruously basic or information is too easily relinquished – particularly in the closing scenes. With the focus shifting to Marc, we lose some of the richness on display throughout and I can’t help thinking some of the latter scenes would benefit from some extra sprinklings of Kneehigh magic.Marc Antolin is an unfettered scamp as young Marc, becoming more morose and troubled as life outside of the loving bubble he creates with Bella begins to inflict disruption and danger. He is ambitious and selfish when it comes to his work, but he is also giving and loving with great sincerity. Antolin put me in mind of Roberto Benigni’s Guido in Life is Beautiful as he offers a divine little physical sequence in which Marc is hauled away by the wedding party. Daisy Maywood’s Bella is sparky and strong but also compellingly subdued – the calm anchor to the wayward ship that is Marc and his artistic temperament. Both Maywood and Antolin give superb and faultless performances; their physicality in particular is pure perfection. They are endearingly funny and the tell the story of these devoted lovers whose lives are disrupted by uncontrollable external factors with great feeling and colour. The pair also have gorgeous voices which combine with those of musicians Ian Ross and James Gow to provide segues between scenes which feel ever just a little too fleeting for all their beauty. Songs and music are delivered in Russian, French and Yiddish – it feels like a token of recognition for both the origins and the influential settings of the story in a production which must use English for the dialogue. Having lyrics we are unable to translate also offers up that pleasing notion of the universality of theatre and storytelling – the words may be lost on us, but the feelings and atmospheres conjured by sound alone have great clarity.The production tracks the progression of Marc and Bella’s relationship as well as their years spent maturing and carving out a life for themselves, all the way to the conclusion. The discord created by the arrival of the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust into their safe world offers up their idealised vision of deep and true love to the stark revelation of its vulnerability; it cannot exist in isolation. There’s friction, upset and tragedy but I can’t call this production moving because it’s too wrapped up in whimsy and playful physicality. When the more sober narrative elements arrive, the signs of humour and light heartedness remain present, so while the production is undoubtedly very feeling, it doesn’t quite feel moving.I seem to always leave a Kneehigh production desperate to see a show of theirs during creation – to see how, when and why so many of the genius elements come to be added to the boiling pot. It’s impressive to see all the nuances involved in making the production a work of art in every respect; design, sound, fluid physicality and dialogue each play a role in reminding us that the inspiration for this beautifully told piece of art was of course the art of another. The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is a beautifully surreal and whimsical staging of a story which is inextricably tied up with history but also incredibly universal and relevant – see it if you can.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk plays at West Yorkshire Playhouse until March 24th, after which it will continue to tour and you can find tickets here.
Photography: Steve Tanner