The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk at the Sam Wanamaker PlayhouseCultureTheatre
“We can pack all the things we love in Vitebsk into our minds and take them with us,” Bella reassures Marc as they are forced to leave their home. The play works in the realm of memory, it is whirling and colourful, tenderly evoking the fleeting nature of the past and present. It is aglow with vibrant greens and pinks; the two actors dance around each other, the stage is a playground for the imagination an enchanting elixir for the senses. It was first performed 20 years ago, created by Emma Rice, Daniel Jamieson and Nikki Sved. Now Rice revisits her first major success as artistic director of the Globe, and nothing could be more perfect for her season of wonder.
It clashes with the historical setting of the Sam Wannamaker, but it works. Ian Ross’s original music (performed live with piano, cello and accordion), with its melancholy refrains and suggestions of Yiddish song and dance, transports the audience to Russia even if the theatre is so very English. The whole production opts for simplicity with only two actors, Audrey Brisson (Bella) and Marc Antolin (Marc Chagall). Props are used imaginatively: Brisson blows up a balloon gradually to mark the progression of her pregnancy, Antolin sprinkles fake snow from his pocket over himself to recreate a freezing walk through St Petersburg.
It is like a painting brought to life: with the vibrant lighting, the actors’ harmonised voices and graceful movements, it captures the theatrical elements of Chagall’s work. Highlights include a moment when a canvas of a Rabbi drawn by Marc is brought to life by Bella, who places her arms through holes and gives it a voice. Presenting figures of the past as paintings is an imaginative way of depicting how an artist experiences memory.
At times the acting verges close to the boundary between over-the-top and dramatic, and loses some of its emotional intensity. But for the most part, Brisson and Antolin keep the audience engaged. It is also current – the story of the exiled Chagalls resonates with the Syrian refugee crisis, and with the upcoming EU referendum, plays such as this need to be seen to make us more aware of the world around us and its past.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Shakespeare’s Globe from 16th June until 2nd July 2016, for further information or to book visit here.
See behind the scenes of the production below: