The constancy of Marc and Bella Chagall’s love for one another from the moment they met until Bella’s death was a consistent influence on Marc Chagall’s work. Their love also provides a counterpoint to the fractious and quickly changing world they inhabited in Russia and Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. This production brings to life the story of their relationship, which played out while Marc rose to the top of the modern art world. Daniel Jameson’s play also explores the way that their grief for their vanishing Jewish homeland in Vitebsk continued to inform his painting and conception of his work.
The Flying Loves of Vitebsk is primarily the story of how great art can be supported in times of trauma, and how love can be sustained despite the domination of this art. Bella’s own work as a writer was constrained to the moments she could catch while Marc was out working and engaged as a scenic artist. As she finds confidence in her writing to tell her own story of Vitebsk, in Yiddish, a secondary story is teased out in the play. It becomes a study of how individuality can be sustained in a relationship like Marc and Bella’s, and how the experiences of two individuals can be both exactly the same yet perceived so differently. This realisation comes to Marc after Bella’s death, and from his own account it was through the realisation of Bella as an artist that his paintings of her developed significantly again in his later life. It is beautiful lesson in the need to articulate our artistic visions.
The play is closely structured around the historical events they experienced: the turning points of Russia’s history were very much their own. This linear retelling, however, is primarily a visual one and it is the mood of these periods and the feelings left by the events that define their story more than the particulars of the political landscape. The production’s mode of visual storytelling is simple but imaginative. Chagall’s reputation as a painter with a renowned sense of colour resonates within their shared life as he brings home a new shade every evening – a celebratory entrance of colourful confetti into their tiny apartment space. Some animals in the paintings; a green cow, an orange cockerel, a white lamb, are carried around with them like half-dreams, half-luggage; as colourful models stuck to the top of their hats. Emma Rice, directing, said that the asymmetry of the stage floor was important in speaking of Chagall’s use of line in his paintings and, of course, their weightlessness.
These visual interpretations of the interrelation between the Chagalls’ lives and Marc’s painting are more pronounced and burlesque than the subtler strand of storytelling they are set alongside; the shoes laid out across the stage and the constant presence of trunks and buckets and clocks are reminders of what it means to be a transient and persecuted minority losing a homeland. The beautiful music created by Ian Ross which draws on Yiddish and Russian melodies is an evocative souvenir of their heritage, woven into their story like their own shared memories.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is in equal parts touching and funny, acted with great energy and precision. Though the story is a unique and personal one, it is, above all, a celebration of love and of all forms of art: painting, dancing, music, writing, and acting. It is a truly joyful show, and one that I am grateful to have seen revived as Emma Rice’s last as artistic director of Kneehigh.