Neatly tucked away behind Usher Hall, Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre has many hidden gems on offer over the Fringe this year, and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is no exception. Delivered in a crescendo of song and colour, Marc Chegall (Marc Antolin) and his beloved Bella (Audrey Brisson) burst onto the stage with a vibrancy of life which, by the time they had departed, left more than a few teary-eyed.
As satisfyingly ostentatious as is to be expected from musical theatre, Antolin and Brisson create a harmonious relationship with their audience. While there are periods where the audience do not exist at all, sometimes we partake the role of wedding guests; on other occasions we find ourselves part of the hustle and bustle in the chaotic streets of Russia through the Pogroms and the revolution. Most of the time, however, we are simply welcome onlookers of their life-long love story.
As Europe enters the First World War, the Chegalls take their honeymoon; and so it goes that every moment of happiness for the pair is trailed by disaster and foreboding. Even in the few moments where war and chaos have subsided, the pair still grapple with the implications of Marc’s Jewish heritage, marking them as third-class citizens. Yet, no matter how low the shadows loom over them, they always find colour in the gloom.
The Flying Lovers delivers a life in miniature, strung together by a diverse and inventive range of music sung in English, Russian and even German. We follow Bella and Marc through the streets of Berlin, Paris, St Petersburg and Moscow not only in spirit but in song. The pair perform beautiful duets, taking full advantage of Brisson’s flawless soprano voice and Antolin’s ability to match each and every note. Composer Ian Ross even joins the pair onstage alongside multi-instrumentalist James Gow, creating a haunting backdrop to the lovers’ experiences.
Chegall produces art because of an ‘agony of need to remember’, but he paints in his particular style simply because he likes it that way. Likewise, there is an inherent human need for such bittersweet stories of toil and sacrifice – but The Flying Lovers was undoubtedly created in such a way for the love of theatre. The bare wooden foundations of the stage, the lopsided and paint-spattered floor, onstage costume changes and rudimental props keep the audience in constant awareness that this is a theatrical production, submerging us not into Marc and Bella’s reality, but into the art of the performance. Director Emma Rice and designer Sophia Clist have ensured that the attention to theatrical practise is given as much heed as the plot itself. Indeed The Flying Lovers is a performance as breathtakingly fantastical as the artist’s work himself, so that we are left emotional prey to the many shades of the Chegalls.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
Until 27th August (not 21st)
Photo credit: Steve Tanner