Even without a pandemic raging through the country, it would have taken a lot for me to venture over to Bristol on a wet and windy Friday night in December, and so I would, in all likelihood, have missed out on seeing Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic and Kneehigh’s revival of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.
But one of the very few upsides to this year has been the development of a new kind of theatre, the kind that means even on a cold Winter evening I can still watch a piece of live theatre from the comfort of my own living room at the other end of the country.
We’ve seen all manner of digital theatre spring up over the last nine months, from plays done over Zoom to pre-records that verge more on cinema than theatre. Here, we have a digital version that is closest to live theatre. The actors and musicians on stage are performing there and then in the moment, while a whole new team of ‘backstage’ crew are required to transport the live action to audience members homes.
Director, Emma Rice introduces us to everyone, from those manning a virtual box office, to the vision mixers, and we can see that Bristol Old Vic is far from empty, a new thriving industry has erupted. All of this so that the story of Marc and Bella Chagall can be told with the authenticity it deserves.
The real-life couple met and fell in love in Belarus, before escaping conscription for a bleak and tormented life in Petersburg, eventually settling in the United States. Marc was a painter, Bella his muse, as well as an accomplished writer.
Daniel Jamieson’s version of their story blends poetic language, folk music and movement to create a living canvas. We move through the years at what must be some speed, but still feels like a gentle meander through history, and this pair did live through some of the most traumatic times in history.
Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson work wonderfully well together as Marc and Bella, and they have created just the right chemistry. Of course, living through such turbulent times put a strain on the relationship, but this is eased gently in to the story and feels like it’s done naturally rather than for dramatic effect.
For this reason, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is more of a landscape than a portrait, and integral to it are musicians, James Gow and Ian Ross (the latter is also composer and Musical Director). Not only do they provide musical accompaniment, but also serve as points of reference where required by the story.
Having spent much of the last nine months insisting that online theatre was merely a stop gap until live theatre could reopen, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk may prove to be the production that defines digital theatre. For here, Emma Rice has shown us that this need not be a replacement or temporary form of performance, but is an entirely new way of making theatre, and one that opens it up to a much larger audience.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk will be livestreamed in a digital tour, 3 – 5 December, and will then be available on demand, 11 – 18 December, to purchase tickets visit: www.wisechildrendigital.com.
Main Image c. Steve Tanner