Beautiful, Bizarre & Breathtaking Theatre: The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk

Last Wednesday, I had a lovey day out for my mum’s birthday at The Lost Gardens Of Heligan. In the evening, we went to watch a play in the Asylum Tent within the gardens. It was a beautiful evening and the perfect location to become absorbed in such a stunning theatrical production.

The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk is a Kneehigh Theatre and  Bristol Old Vic co-production, written by Daniel Jamieson and directed by Emma Rice. I hadn’t done much research beforehand, but I knew it was a love story and had a feeling it might be a sad one.

As we entered the Asylum tent and were shown to our seats, we were treated to a sensory delight of the most beautifully haunting music imaginable. The stage was an artistic scuplture of angled wooden beams, ropes and basic but curious props, such as a telephone and a clock.

A man stood next to us in the aisle; his face was painted white and he wore a shirt, trousers and braces, occasionally humming along to the intriguing music. Suddenly, he began to sing along. His voice had a dream-like quality and was perfectly complemented by a soprano voice from a woman, also with her face painted white, standing in the opposite aisle.

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Their mesmerising melody floated around the tent as they slowly walked towards the stage. These were the voices of the two lovers: Marc Chagall, played by Marc Antolin, and Bella Chagall, played by Audrey Brisson.

Brisson’s emotive soprano voice blended beautifully with Antolin’s voice and the way they moved together on stage was even more sublime. Brisson is an accomplished acrobat who has previously performed with Cirque du Soleil, so it came as no surprise that she was able to conjure up striking dance and visuals on stage.

Marc Chagall was a leading pioneer in modern art, creating striking and vivid paintings during an uncertain and poignant period in history. Much like this artwork, The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk production is a sensory delight: the piano, cello and accordion (beautifully played by Ian Ross and James Gow) evoking sometimes sensual and sometimes somber imagery and the intertwining bodies and whimsical posing of the lovers.

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This magical tale tells the story of two lovers who married young and struggled to make a life for themselves during the tumultuous time of early 20th Century Europe. The title of this imaginative play suggests the power of their love is strong enough to fly with melancholy undertones of the characters fleeing from anti-semitism.

The play cleverly switches from the bizarre to the beautifully tragic. At some moments, I laughed out loud, along with the other audience members, and at other times I was on the verge of tears. Antolin portrays the eccentric side of Marc Chagall really well; his humourous and silly dancing serves as a fantastic contrast to the raw emotion of the love songs.

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The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk depicts the tension between the artist’s life and the personal life of Marc Chagall. Bella and Marc may be soul mates, but that doesn’t stop them from having different perceptions of the world. There are several heart-wrenching moments throughout the play such as when the lovers are living in Moscow and Marc misses the birth of his daughter, Ida because he is so consumed by finishing his art. Bella doesn’t fulfil her own potential (she was one of the four brightest students in the whole of Russia) and only after her death is her talent honoured.

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At the end of the play, the characters flee to America where Bella sadly passes away after being too frightened to go to the hospital because she is Jewish. The distraught Marc finds the childhood memoirs she has written in Yiddish and has them published. Although we see that he has let her down in some ways, I never doubted the purity of their love which was portrayed so well. As the play closes, we return to the beginning of their story when Bella surprises Marc on his birthday, accompanied by the dazzling music which, I think, suggests their love still lives on, despite Marc remarrying after Bella’s death.

In Marc Chagall’s paintings, the lovers are a picture of romance but in real life they lived through some of the most devastating times in history. An unforgettable production of a truly remarkable story.

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