Lovers of Vitebsk
Wilton's Music Hall January-February 2018 and touring
The Flying Lovers is Kneehigh Theatre doing what it does best, creating moments of breathtaking theatrical beauty out of the simplest of effects.
The only possible complaint to make is that not every single second of the ninety-minute show is magical – there are moments of merely ordinary beauty to allow us to catch our breath.
Daniel Jamieson's play is a celebration of the lifelong love of painter Marc Chagall and his wife Bella.
(This is actually one of Kneehigh's earliest productions, first done twenty-five years ago with the playwright and Emma Rice in the central roles; Rice returns to direct this revival starring Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood.)
The biographical material is in fact the least interesting part of the show, just because it is essentially prosaic. What captures and holds you is the inventive evocation of passionate love, inspired by Chagall's repeated imagery of the lovers floating above their Russian village.
When the couple onstage first meet they rise on tiptoe, as if being pulled aloft by a force almost greater than gravity, and repeatedly the grasping of a convenient bit of rope allows them to hang in the air, barely pivoting on their feet.
She meets him while accompanied by a friend played by a simple round balloon, but when she spots Chagall she lets the balloon float into the rafters and we sense the rest of the world disappearing.
Brief sequences of dance (choeography by Emma Rice and Ella Murfitt) hint at escaping gravity and evoke half-forgotten images from Chagall paintings.
(It seems likely that what was to become a Kneehigh signature effect – actors rising off the ground like Peter Pan to signify romantic ecstasy – came from this early Chagall connection.)
The lead actors are supported by musicians James Gow and Ian Ross, who occasionally play minor roles, and the play is punctuated by Russian and Yiddish folk songs, frequently of the wordless sort ('lu lu lu') that take on the power of both invocations and lullabies.
Jamieson's text captures the slightly different voices of the two lovers, particularly Bella's sharp observations – disapproving wedding guests 'offering their doubts like gifts' and travellers 'waiting ambitiously for their train.'
You might feel the energy level of the show dropping whenever the biography takes over. But hang in there – another unexpected bit of visual or musical imagery will soon come along to lift you up once more.
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Review - The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk - Wilton's Music Hall 2018