THE FLYING LOVERS OF VITEBSK at Bristol Old Vic

Occasionally, when all the elements that go into making theatre come together successfully, there can be alchemy, an enchantment that lifts a production to a level where it not only delivers delightful story telling, but also elicits a deeply emotional response from an audience. Such was the case with this exceptional Kneehigh production at the Old Vic. The huge roar that greeted players and musicians at the finale was every bit deserved.

Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson lit up the Old Vic with a sparkling portrayal of the lives of painter Marc Chagall and his wife Bella Rosenfeld. With inspired direction from Emma Rice, coupled with the beguiling music of Music Director Ian Ross, performed by Ross and James Gow on piano, accordion, cello and trumpet, this was a performance to lock away in a memory treasure box.

Antolin and Brisson had palpable chemistry between them on stage as they explored the couple’s passion for each other during a tumultuous period of revolution and Nazi terror. Through song, spoken word, physical theatre and at times balletic movement, they held the eye and the imagination for the full 90 minutes. In their movement, sometimes aided by the many ropes hanging from the superstructure of the stage set, they recreated a sublime weightlessness, as appears in Chagall’s painting Over the Town, which portrays the couple flying together over the rooftops of Vitebsk.

Declaring “An agony of need to remember,” the play begins with Chigall’s nostalgia for his Russian Jewish roots – the colours and smells of the community in Vitebsk with its 60 synagogues and two Catholic cathedrals, which would find their way, dreamlike, on to his canvasses, and amusingly, during the play, into witty iconic hats and props. Ross’s music seeped into and supported this narrative with traditional Jewish melodies, sometimes joined by the company singing boisterously in Yiddish. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting, with echoes of Chagall’s palette of bright reds, green and blues, always supported the choreography.

Brisson has toured extensively with the Cirque Du Soleil as a vocalist and an acrobat. She possesses a fine voice, and when finding high harmonies over Antonin’s tenor, she produced delicious notes of absolute clarity. She brought a mischievous eroticism to the role of Bella, but also gave her an independent and intellectual voice as a fledgling writer, and new mother. When she admonishes Marc for only appearing four days after the birth of their daughter Ida, he is forced to consider how his obsession for his painting has subsumed his humanity. It is her resolve that will drive the couple away from the art establishment in Saint Petersburg to find comfort and creativity back in their hometown of Vitebsk, before the lure of Paris takes Marc away.

As is always the case with Kneehigh productions, there is exuberance and poignancy aplenty in any performance. A boisterous Jewish wedding scene involving chairs picked up the mood, while sad but amusingly portrayed moments including the painting of a rabbi fleeing the Germans and Bella’s admonishment of her mother’s extravagant weeping, were both memorable.

In a production that has been beautifully and lovingly crafted, these ‘flying lovers’ will live on in your memory for a long time to come.    ★★★★★      Simon Bishop    11th August 2017