Even though we entered the last month of 2020 and we saw the end of a second lockdown in England, those unfortunate theatres around the country that happen to find themselves in Tier 3 are still closed to the public. Like many others, Bristol Old Vic has managed to make lemonade out of lemons and started streaming their projects online with a cracking program that, however, is only a shadow of the real thing. Yet, let’s consider ourselves lucky to be able to enjoy the sweet crumbs of a cruel year.
The latest production to grace screens all around the world (the only positive side of online performances) in Emma Rice’s staging of Daniel Jamieson’s The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. Rice’s love story with the material starts in the early 90s when she took on the role of Bella opposite the playwright for Theatre Alibi.
The play follows painter Marc Chagall and his wife on their journey across passion, art, and the devastation of war. Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson take on the narration in turns to guide the phantom crowd through a magical piece of theatre that plays with the dissonance between vibrant stagecraft and the horrifying historical background.
Sophia Clist’s stage frames the lovers in a jagged pattern that resembles the universe they inhabit in an imaginative and immediate design. Rice’s visuals carry every aspect of Chagall’s artistic inclination, with the politics of the time barging in through cold tones against their previous exuberance.
The political angle, although present in their accounts, becomes a lazy ghost who’s lost interest in its haunting. The danger and anxiety are somehow smothered by Chagall’s colours and the striking cohesiveness of the direction, so at times they turn into the afterthought of the couple’s relationship.
Nonetheless, the end result is visually beautiful and perfectly encapsulates the artist’s vision and translates it to the stage. Ultimately, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is a multi-disciplinary piece. Rice moves from straight drama to musical numbers (with Ian Ross curating the composition and musical direction), miming, shadow play, and delicate slapstick, while physical storytelling ties everything together and creates a detailed intimacy through movement.
“Everything I have ever made is for her” he says, and while we can only imagine what the show feels like in person, this feeling flourishes from the screen. The live editing and camera angles are – as predicted – slightly restrictive in their delivery, failing to convey the full picture on multiple occasions by focusing on only one of the actors omitting the other and the two extraordinarily talented musicians that accompany them, James Gow and Ross himself.
This obviously belongs to the limitations of filmed theatre and isn’t a flaw of this specific production, but the sad, fake applause that pops up during the performance is frankly inexcusable especially after we’ve seen that the only people in the auditorium are the creative team and the crew – who only at the very end explode and clap, finally giving us a genuine ovation. Even so, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is hypnotising, but we can all agree that it’s time for online shows to retire for good.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is now available on demand until 18 December, with tickets starting at £17.
Photo credit: Steve Tanner