U.K. Review: "The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk" at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

Love has often been the primary thematic centrepiece in Kneehigh Theatre’s work. It is a stimulus that provokes and inspires beautiful conjurations from the whole of their creative team, whether they’re adapting an existing narrative or crafting something new entirely, and when under the masterful direction of Kneehigh’s former Artistic Director Emma Rice, these pieces have always been nothing short of incredible. Rice has always had a gift when it comes to harnessing the vast facets of human experience that stem from love, whether that be with Kneehigh or in her recent creative ventures at Shakespeare’s Globe. On that note, I was very much looking forward to seeing Rice back to directing under Kneehigh’s banner in her latest piece of work.

It is very fitting that her latest theatrical comes in the form of Daniel Jamieson’s The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, an adaptation based on the life of painter Marc Chagall (Marc Antolin) and his wife and writer Bella (Daisy Maywood ), first performed as Birthday in 1992 by Theatre Alibi. In the narrative, we follow the deliriously giddy highs of their relationship, along with the strife and strain that comes as the couple develop amidst the backdrop of war, exile and the journey to find one’s place in the world.

The epic narrative stretches across the couple’s lifetime, providing any director with a real challenge as they find a way to bring the vast world of the protagonists to life. In her own unique way that has inspired theatre-makers and directors the world over, Rice returns to the same simple storytelling style that characterised Kneehigh’s work as some of the best on stage. She has two musicians (James Gow and Ian Ross) accompany her lovers onstage, providing us with plenty of story-driven music and supplementing and enhancing the work of the two actors to great effect.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk Review Photo 1.jpg

Antolin and Maywood share a real chemistry and relentless energy onstage that allows us to gain a deep insight into the soaring heights of their characters’ love and the poignant tragedies that they encounter in their journey across the world. Both capture the individual essences of their characters with flair and truth, and working in tandem with the musicians onstage and truly feeling at one with the piece’s scenography, they deliver exceptional performances that inspire and engage.

The most striking aspect of this potent scenography is Sophia Clist’s gorgeous set design. Sharp and angular, childlike in its similarity to a climbing frame and unsettled in its sloping appearance, it crafts an image of a world always on the verge of change, and helps to remind us how love can help us navigate these changes as the story of our lovers unfolds within it. Completing the scenography is Simon Baker’s sound design, which constructs a sonic landscape as vast as the play-world, and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design, which illuminates the protagnists and world of the play with the same vibrance that you’d find in one of Chagall’s paintings.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is a moving, intimate piece of theatre that sensitively, poignantly and joyfully brings to life the story of two incredible lovers who thrive on their art and the beauty they find in one another. Rice masterfully blends comedy and tragedy to give us a piece pulsating with elegance and dynamism, along with unstoppable energy and a true drive to enhance the meaning in the stories of its central characters and, furthermore, its audience members’ own experiences. It is this quality, along with the fact it is a sheer joy to watch and engage with, that makes The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk a truly wonderful piece of theatre.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 24th March, and then continues on tour. For more information and tickets, visit: http://www.kneehigh.co.uk/show/flying-lovers-vitebsk.php