This joyous and poignant reworking of Daniel Jamieson’s play The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is a five star poetic exploration into the worlds of artist Marc Chagall and his writer wife Bella Chagall. The piece is treated as a semi-retrospective voyage into their lives. Through earth shattering world events, they are forced to travel, forced to find new homes, and forced to keep evasively moving through the Russian Revolution and the Second World War. All of this mammoth effort is done in order to escape hatred, destruction and terror as Jewish artists. In the production Marc Chagall says that, “In Moscow we lived on nothing but black bread and Kasha made with millet.” The threat of being identified and persecuted as Jews is a constant and terrifying shadow in this compellingly great bijou production of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. It’s overflowing and highly inventive theatricality is the vital impetus in promoting this stunning production.
Emma Rice directs with great vision and sensitivity bringing the various stories to life through a kaleidoscope of colour, poetic and metaphorical dramatic text (Daniel Jamieson) combined with Yiddish music and choreography. James Gow and Ian Ross return to the production as musicians and occasionally flex their acting and singing muscles whilst Audrey Brisson (Bella Chagall) and Marc Antolin (Marc Chagall) amuse and hypnotise us with their mesmerising portrayals. It’s a very physical work of theatrical art on and around Sophia Clist’s cleverly designed set and both actors excel both in acrobatic body and voices.
A passage of the text that particularly breaks the heart is when Marc Chagall declares ” We couldn’t stay in Vitebsk. Not long after we left my father was crushed by the wheels of a truck while still loading barrels of herring after all these years, but we didn’t go back for the funeral. We never went back and the world we knew disappeared forever.” A little further along in the exposition Bella suggests to her husband that what is done is done and that he lay down the great sack of troubles he has been carrying on his back. But is this a burden he can put down on a whim or a strong part of his character that needs suffering to express himself?
As the play begins on a relatively light trouble free instant teenage attraction between Marc and Bella its dramatic arc gradually develops into a debate about the value of the dream-like artistic Expressionist painting against the stark reality of the world they are living in and battling against as a couple on the run as artists and individuals. Which is more important to them, the world of paintings and galleries and success against the odds or the life of a new born child and a wife that may die of a streptococcus throat infection without penicillin? How thin can true love be stretched in extraordinary circumstances and what value does art have to salve human souls? How do we measure the values? The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk explores all these things and does so with a great deal of panache and the theatricality we have all been missing so much during the current pandemic and the closure of theatre for a live theatre experience. Kneehigh, Wise Children and Bristol Old Vic are rightly praised for still bringing class theatre to us through the medium of live streaming.