Writer Daniel Jamieson
Director & Co-Choreographer Emma Rice
Kneehigh & Bristol Old Vic
Originally performed as Birthday over 25 years ago The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is a celebration of love and art on so many levels. The love child of writer Daniel Jamieson and director Emma Rice who also acted in the original,it was revived in 2016 and has been a hugely successful production for Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic. This lush homage to another set of young lovers- artist Marc Chagall and his beloved muse and first wife Bella Rosenfeld paints a picture on the stage that is both sensual and transcendent.
The love story is told in flashbacks as a widowed Chagall recounts the romance over the telephone to his son-in-law, the art historian Franz Mayer. They met and fell in love in Vitebsk, Belarus in 1909 and married in 1915 when Chagall returned from successes in Paris and Berlin. Trapped in Russia because of WW1, they were to witness the Russian Revolution and Chagall established the Vitebsk Arts College and painted in the Moscow New Jewish Theatre. Bella gave birth to their daughter Ida and carried on her own writing. They later fled to Europe, before WW2 and the Holocaust forced them to escape France on 1941 for America where Bella died in 1944.
The central performances are flawless. Marc Artolin and Daisy Maywood are utterly believable and sing, dance and emote with a form of enhanced theatricality that perfectly fits this dreamy, magical piece. The sense of a place so vibrant and colourful reduced by war to memories and black and white postcards is beautifully evoked. Every movement is choreographed to create a sense of immersion in Chagall’s paintings and in their hopes and dreams, and their visual and sensory world. Also on stage throughout are multi-instrumentalists Ian Ross and James Gow who bring another layer of rich authenticity playing music with French, Yiddish and Russian influences and a definite klezmer vibe.
Magical touches like a red helium balloon floating away as a fleeting love interest blushing like a radish. Colourful hats portraying animals from his paintings and symbolic fruits like the etrog are images from a lost world as the honeymoon trunk is unpacked. The inspired wit of using puppetry chairs to allow the lovers to dance the Hora or chair dance at their wedding which symbolises that in a good marriage you always strive to go ever higher, as these soaring lovers did in so many of his paintings. There are moments where images from paintings come to life through tableau scenes like when a canvas of a rabbi is unfolded in front of Bella and her own arms come through it as life and art merge.
Designer Sophie Clist has created a set which is compressed yet airy. It allows paintings to come to life and lovers to soar. It also gives a sense of a boat at sea, a reminder of the dispossessed on the move, always either leaving or returning. The lighting by Malcolm Rippeth has all the vibrancy of classic Kneehigh productions but in this piece is even more potent. The painterly depth and richness feels almost visceral at times with the wedding scene having a neon quality. Everything here is heightened and vital, from the tick of a clock and the slow drip from the ceiling to the lily white face and blackberry curls with eyes so blue like splinters from heaven.
Rice and Jamieson have created something of timeless tenderness. A lost world is seen again as we walk in the lover’s shoes through extraordinary times in history. The unpacking of the shoes and journals is utterly poignant, a reminder of so many journeys and stories recorded, and evoking the piles of shoes in Auschwitz belonging to the Jews who couldn’t escape. Chagall comes vividly to life as a pioneer of Modernism and as one of the most famous Jewish artists of the twentieth century. His Bella is painted as he saw her long flying over my canvas guiding my art…..Love and fantasy go hand in hand.
Images by Steve Tanner