Review: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (Bristol Old Vic stream)
Wise Children, Kneehigh and Bristol Old VIc collaborate on the streamed experience
"When some things are gone, you thirst for their details in such a heartbreaking way."
Words from Daniel Jamieson's The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk hit all the harder while the bulk of venues remain closed. Bristol Old Vic – initially hoping to welcome socially distanced audiences for the new revival of Kneehigh's piece – was one of the locations forced to keep spectators away due to "tier three" restrictions.
But the show must go on and, first things first – technophobes fear not. Jamieson's play, staged with typical Kneehigh whimsy and enchanting physicality by the company alongside director Emma Rice's new troupe Wise Children, suits the live-stream form remarkably well – more so than Rice's previous virtual piece – Romantics Anonymous.
Whereas Romantics Anonymous, with its bulkier cast and large, choreographed set-pieces, meant the camera had to pull away and distance itself to fit the entire stage, here director of photography Steve Tanner can push in – with the two performers on stage (award-nominees and Bristol Old Vic regulars Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson) creating a vibrant, intimate experience.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk follows Jewish-Belarusi-French artist Marc Chagall and Jewish-Belarusian writer Bella Rosenfeld, who married in 1915 and stayed together through some of the most turbulent, horrifying moments of the 20th Century – the Pogroms, the Holocaust and into the opening salvos of the Second World War.
Jamieson places the emphasis quite firmly on the pair's romance – for good and ill. Thankfully Brisson and Antolin are utterly hypnotic – characterisation and choreography (Etta Murfitt, working her usual charm) colliding in a blissful 90-minute experience. But the history they live through at times becomes a wash, a lighting designer's gel, or a tonal shift – rather than a seismic alteration in the piece's fabric. It keeps us fixated on Chagall and Rosenfeld but at the same time swerves away from the heart-wrenching realities of subjugation, genocide and discrimination.
This may well be the point – exploring their artists' psyches while also displaying their lack of agency as they hover, at a pen or paint brush's distance from the horrors of the era – at one point Chagall mistakes a policeman hanging from a streetlight for a stray coat.
There are some fun details – the voice of the venue's artistic director Tom Morris on the end of a telephone being one for the theatre nerds. Tanner crossfades shots, pitting ghoulish, semi-opaque frames over one another in real-life. A ghost-like, melancholic piece that loses little of its stage magic when beamed live across the world.