Theatre review: The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe: It may not be the most demanding show on the Fringe, and its narrative arc is entirely simple.

Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)


But all the same, this glorious co-production from Knee-high Theatre of Cornwall and Bristol Old Vic must be one of the most lusciously beautiful shows in Edinburgh this year, a magnificent feast of colour and lyricism that also reflects with some sadness on this year’s dominant Fringe theme of migration and exile, and the intolerance and violence that too often lies behind the movement of people.

Written by Daniel Jamieson, The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk tells the story of the painter Marc Chagall and his wife, the writer Bella Rosenfeld, who were born into the thriving Jewish community of Vitebsk, now in Belarus, at the end of the 19th century. Marc and Bella – exquisitely played by Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson – fall in love, and Marc goes to Paris for three years to make his fortune as a painter; but by the time he returns to Vitebsk in 1914 to marry Bella, the European horizon is dark with war, and their story becomes one of growing uncertainty and exile, as their daughter Ida is born in freezing wartime St Petersburg, and Marc gradually falls out of favour with the new revolutionary Soviet government, after 1917.

The story is told in a torrent of lush and beautiful colour and traditional Jewish wedding-band music (played live by Ian Ross and James Gow) that somehow captures the unforgettable vividness and almost child-like wonder of Chagall’s paintings, without slavishly imitating or recreating them. The story of Bella and Marc ends in New York State, where she died during the Second World war; the story of Vitebsk ends in utter horror, with the total destruction of its Jewish community at the hands of communism and Nazism.

Yet in Emma Rice’s magical production, there is a sweetness in the narrative, and in Chagall’s character and work, that survives every horror; and leaves a legacy of love, belief, and joyful colour, forged in the most terrible times.