The artworks of Marc Chagall are images full of wobbliness. Even those containing perpendicular lines or geometric shapes, such as The Fiddler or I and the Village, have a slippery quality. The colours and shapes burble like jelly, making the world in the paintings seem off-kilter. Were it not for the strength of the colours the images would appear to be in the process of dissolving. All is unstable, morphing from one thing to the next.
This quality of instability is preserved in Sophia Clist’s set design for The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. In a studied avoidance of using the cavernous space of the Bristol Old Vic stage in the manner many productions do, Clist’s design blocks off the majority of the stage and, rather than going backwards into the expanse available, teeters out towards the audience. Although using straight pieces of wood to create a raised platform and suspended structure (the equivalent of a surrealist take on garden pergola), there are no right angles noticeable. Everything totters, slants and avoids being steady.
Preserving this amorphous world of Chagall’s art is important as the two main characters of The Flying Lovers, Marc and his wife Bella, have much to feel unstable about. Their lives play out against a backdrop of almost unfathomable destruction and upheaval. From fleeing from conscription during WWI through the Bolshevik revolution to the devastation of their Jewish hometown in WWII, they lived in times where the real world was disintegrating into new forms that often made no sense.
Like the stage scenery, the great events of 20th century Europe are both a fundamental part of the narrative of The Flying Lovers, and positioned as the background to the majority of the action. The real focus here is on the marriage of Bella and Marc, two individuals trying to keep a foothold in the slanting, wobbling world around them.
At only 2 hours long, The Flying Lovers is pleasingly un-self indulgent. There is a deftness of touch to the production in the way that it mentions numerous issues – the egotism of the male artist being one – but leaves as much implied as explicitly stated. In the Chagall images that inspired the title of the piece, the lovers fly entwined through the sky, but Bella’s body is often straighter, more determined in its flight path than Marc, who clings on to his beloved in a manner than makes you suspect that he is only kept aloft by her. And this is the basic premise of the production. That underneath his selfish insularity and foregrounding of his own artistic endeavours over Bella’s, Chagall is one more historical figure characterised by the maxim: ‘behind every great man is a great woman.’
The last Keehigh production directed by Emma Rice before she becomes fully entrenched in the Globe, The Flying Lovers is far more subtle and quiet than work by the Cornish company normally is. When I saw Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) I wondered whether it was all a bit too Kneehigh (and I say this as someone who adores Kneehigh). It felt almost like the aesthetic, which is particularly recognisable, was on the borderline on being formulaic. Seeing them put on this gentle, stripped back performance is therefore a treat. The relationship between Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson is allowed to be enough in itself to capture audience attention. There is an intimacy and familiarity in the way the two performers move around one another that is beautifully realistic of long term relationships. For a show that is fully clothed and contains only as much as a kiss, there is also a subtle sexiness to the performance and the way their bodies counterweight the other.
By 1944, of a pre-war population of 170,000, only 118 residents of Vitebsk remained – saved by having hidden in cellars. No matter how many times we read statistics like this the full force of them is almost unable to be felt. The Flying Lovers, with its celebration of colour, art, Klezmer music and love, turns printed numbers into a delicate depiction of the humans behind them.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is on until 11th June 2016 at the Bristol Old Vic and then touring. Click here for more information.