The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Last week I travelled to the Lost Gardens of Heligan to see Kneehigh Theatre’s latest offering, the Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. Perhaps it wasn’t  to everyone’s taste. I went alone and the people seated on either side of me didn’t return after the interval. Their loss, in my opinion.

I suppose many expect certain things of Kneehigh, particularly the Cornish audiences. They expect slapstick humour, music, audience involvement – at least by frequent direct address to them from the actors – comical dances, often from a chorus of characters and witty reversals from comedy to plucking at the heart-strings. But some of the shows have a different trajectory, and this was one.

I loved it! There is always something to engage you in Kneehigh and, personally, I like it even more when they explore the darker side. I’ve never forgotten the ending of the Bacchae, or Tristan and Yseult in both of which the comic coin flips upside down and reveals its tragic underside.

The Flying Lovers are the artist Marc Chagall and his wife Bella. The play, written by Daniel Jamieson under the different title Birthday, follows their life-story from their falling in love in their home-town, Vitebsk, through two wars, persecution of the Jews – they were both Jewish – brief success as an artist in Moscow, Paris, the USA… Chagall’s growing fame, to Bella’s death and Marc’s release of her spirit through acknowledgement of her own creativity.

The set [designed by Sophia Clist] was constructed of wooden poles, not straight or upright but crazily leaning and crossing over each other, suggesting the outlines of buildings, windows, doors, as in Chagall’s own paintings. To the poles were attached most of the props needed in the show [though some were thrown to them by the two musicians]. The floor of the set sloped wonkily, like the inside of an old attic. Like all Kneehigh sets, it was clever, idiosyncratic and useful – though one or two of the audience may have found they needed to peer round a crossed-over pole at times.

Far more than usual the show was largely danced and sung. Rather than musical interludes being strung together by dialogue, this was reversed. In a previous production, The Wild Bride, Kneehigh had moved towards this recipe; this production moved even further in the direction of music and dance. The two members of the cast – Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson [who also sung and played as the bride in The Wild Bride] had beautiful clear voices and moved with charm and restraint. They were wonderfully accompanied by Ian Ross and James Gow as musicians, who occasionally swelled out the scene as characters, such as marching soldiers. The music, witty and veering between a period jazz feel and the haunting melancholy of Yiddish music, underlined the entire show. It was a musical backdrop that helped with a sense of time and place as well as with mood.

I loved some of the more subtle touches: the placing of pairs of shoes around the stage, to mark the couple’s constant travelling, for instance. As an image, it also subtly suggested the piles of empty shoes found at the Nazi death camps, underlying both their Jewishness and the enduring archetype of the Wandering Jew. Nice!

The strong love that bound the pair was shown through dance movements and held positions that echoed Chagall’s own flying figures. I felt that the movement reflected the tension in the play between joyful creation, which liberates the artist, and the shackles of misunderstanding, poverty, the ties of father/motherhood. When all goes well with the characters: their early love, occasional successes, and happinesses, the artist flies. At times he flies in partnership with Bella. But it is not till her writing is discovered and liberated towards the end of the piece that Bella too ‘flies’ as an artist in her own right.

Not an easy piece to put over, it contained plenty of comedic touches in the first half, plus the charm and joy of the young lovers and the freedom of their movements. But life gets its teeth into them and the second half is less successful. Perhaps to encompass a whole life’s journey is too much. There was not much Kneehigh laughter after the interval, but it would have been out of place. I enjoyed the piece immensely, but I can understand how casual visitors might have found the experience unexpected and hard to grasp.


I have very exciting news for all Drama teachers and for DramaWorks. For the last few months I have been in negotiation with a company called Digital Theatre Plus and the result is that for the next few years we are going into partnership together. They have a large catalogue of live theatre screenings which they are adding to all the time. I am writing resources, over time, to go with these as a package, though I have many of my back resources that already fit nicely in. There are so many other things they are doing too: live filmed interviews with actors, directors and designers, for example. Just imagine how useful that will be. It means that you can study the play in the usual way, using one of my teaching resources which leads you in a practical way through the entire script, AND have a live film version AND a variety of other resources aimed at rounding out the whole experience for your students. Over time we aim to have every play on all syllabuses covered.

Digital Theatre have made partnerships with a large number of theatre groups already, and the results of those links will be available too. The partnerships include; The Old Vic, The Young Vic, the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe, Frantic Assembly, Tricycle Theatre, Perfect Pitch and many more…

Educationally the partnership makes sense, which is why I have embraced it with enthusiasm. This way we will be able to reach teachers and students throughout the world who are studying drama at any exam-based level.

The launch of all the new stuff will take place later in the summer, in time for next year’s teaching. I will let you know when that happens. Meanwhile you can already check out Digital Theatre’s catalogue of live plays and films, and of course you can continue to buy resources from myself. In time, though, you will be able to buy my resources through their website as well as through my own.

Check out the article in The Stage, for news of the partnership!

Digital Theatre+ and DramaWorks form exclusive partnership

Digital education platform Digital Theatre+ and specialist drama education publisher DramaWorks have entered into a 9-year, exclusive partnership.

The deal will result in over 37 curriculum-mapped learning resources on key theatre practitioners and texts being made available to Digital Theatre+’s 3 million users from 1,000 schools, colleges and universities in over 55 countries. It also includes a commitment to commission another 40 resources over the period. The agreement sees DramaWorks Founder Jeni Whittaker, a renowned former drama teacher and Chief Examiner, join Digital Theatre+’s distinguished Creative Learning Advisory Panel.

“We are delighted to be able to to offer our audience the opportunity to access this world-class and highly sought-after educational content on our platform. Jeni has unrivalled insight and expertise into what teachers need. DramaWorks incorporates a practical approach to theatre into its educational content and we already excel in bringing world-class filmed productions to students around the globe. It’s a superb match.”

said Digital Theatre+ Chairman, Justin Cooke.

Jeni Whittaker understands that students at Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 need to translate visual and practical experience of drama into written form. The methods of each practitioner are made uniquely accessible and tested through practical application.

Most of these materials feed directly into the examination requirements. There are also lesson plans for years 7, 8 and 9, and general work on Devising and on Physical Theatre, which are suitable for use at many levels including the first-year of a BA degree.

Jeni Whittaker, Founder of DramaWorks commented:

“Educationally it makes complete sense to combine two forms of educational content. I’m delighted that this partnership will enable, reach and help teachers more than either of us on our own can do.”

Working with Digital Theatre+’s Publishing and Education teams led by Fiona Lindsay and Talia Rodgers, DramaWorks will collaborate to create more teaching resources. All DramaWorks’ learning resources will be available on from September 2016 as well, of course, as still being available on Dramaworks’ own website.

Download The DramaWorks and Digital Theatre+ Announcement

Read more about this from Jeni on the Blog