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The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk review at Bristol Old Vic – ‘a visual gem’

Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson in Kneehigh's The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Steve Tanner Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson in Kneehigh's The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Steve Tanner

Bristol Old Vic’s long-running love affair with irrepressible Cornish theatre company Kneehigh is being celebrated in this visual gem of a co-production, based on the life and work of avant-garde Russian artist Marc Chagall and his first wife, the writer Bella Rosenfeld.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is being staged right at the heart of the Theatre Royal’s 250th anniversary programme and carries extra frisson as the final production for Kneehigh of artistic director Emma Rice, now embedded in the equivalent role at Shakespeare’s Globe. Her skill as both a popular and a creative story-teller emerges most strongly in the play’s second half, which tackles head-on exactly what it means to be an artist.

Chagall believed that the freer the soul, the more abstract painting becomes. Playwright Daniel Jamieson underlays this with the conflict between the artistic and personal lives of Chagall and Rosenfeld, his muse for those iconic pictures of lovers in full aerial flight.

The play’s added dimension tells of Russia’s multiple traumas throughout Chagall’s lifetime – the pogroms, the revolution, the forced migration of Jews, the Marxist regime. As always with Kneehigh, this is a powerful brew served up against a rich background of Yiddish folk song and dance from musicians Ian Ross and James Gow.

Both actors, Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson, are at their best in the more intimate moments, but also bring impressive energy to the free-flowing narrative as they manoeuvre at speed around Sophia Clist’s tent pole set.

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Kneehigh’s typically high-octane approach evokes the challenges facing an artist