Kneehigh: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Bella with White Collar, I and the Village, The Fiddler, The Praying Jew, The Birthday… We know and love these Chagall paintings – they feed our souls and invade our dreams – and here they are recreated live on stage in Kneehigh’s The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, which charts the great love story of Marc and Bella Chagall in glorious pictures, words and sounds.

The painting are presented to us not as facsimiles in paint on canvas – nothing so crude and obvious – but as human bodies singing, dancing, making music, making love. Inevitably, in a show about a great visual artist staged by a great visual theatre maker, the scenography and dramaturgy are completely and harmoniously intertwined. The raked stage is patterned with painted swirls and dribbles; the screen to the rear serves as a canvas for a constantly evolving painting in light; and the four performers – two musicians, Ian Ross and James Gow; and  a pair of perfectly paired actor-singers, Marc Antolin as Marc Chagall and Audrey Brisson as Bella  – create a succession of tableaux vivant and moving pictures that constantly delight. The only time that director Emma Rice and designer Sophie Clist choose to have an actual Chagall reproduction on stage it is when we encounter the Praying  Jew (the Rabbi of Vitebsk) – but this is very much tongue-in-cheek as the Rabbi’s portrait is ‘puppeteered’ with human arms sticking out to the side – one of many lovely comic moments in the show.

The action takes place on a stage within the stage, the audience on three sides – this stage supplemented with a musician’s station, which is centred around a piano bearing an old-fashioned lamp; and a comfy armchair placed downstage, which is often Bella’s place of refuge. The back screen also serves as a shadow theatre screen, and the space around the sides of the stage is also a performance space – used most effectively, for example, when Bella in wedding dress steps down to address us as her wedding guests: ‘People offer doubts as gifts,’ she says, referring to her family’s reservations about her marrying a poor painter. A Jewish painter who wants to waste the rest of his life with her!

As is always the case with Kneehigh, music plays an important part in setting the scene, conveying the mood, and driving forward the narrative.  The two musicians play piano, cello, accordion, fiddle, trumpet – sometimes from their off-stage station, and sometimes taking centrestage – perhaps donning papier-mache headresses. (The cockerels, cows, candles and clocks of Chagall’s paintings find their way into the stage pictures in many and various ways!)  Audrey Brisson sings like an angel in Yiddish and French.The choreography embraces bright and breezy Jewish Russian wedding dances and delicate moments of love and romance – the lovers fly from the ground not on harnesses or pulleys, but using the simple effect of a well-held acrobalance pose on a chair, or dangling gently from a short rope hanging from a wooden beam. Less is more, and it works beautifully.  Emma Rice does stage sex very well: as we saw in Tristan and Yseult, and other earlier Kneehigh productions, she has an excellent knack of creating breathtakingly tender and erotic duets between her main characters.  Here, when Bella softly rolls over the length of Marc’s body, or straddles him on a chair, or literally leaps into his arms from across the stage.

The lovers’ story takes them (and us) on a breathtaking journey through twentieth-century history. The pogroms, the Russian Revolution, the renewed animosity towards Jews, the rise of Nazism, life in exile in Paris or Berlin or New York… At times, we are subjected to slightly too much information, and scriptwriter Daniel Jamieson puts rather too many words in Marc’s mouth: a heavy burden is placed on the character of Chagall to constantly carry that story, and perhaps there could have been a little more transposing of narrative into physical or visual narrative.

Jamieson and Rice do not shy away from presenting the occasional difficulties in Marc and Bella’s marriage and the conflicts between them, nor the flaws in Marc’s character – some of which we could see as of-its-time masculine attitudes to the woman’s role in a marriage, and some of which as the acting out of the eternal (and ongoing) Romantic view of the life of an artist as something separate from and above the domestic. Bella’s hurt when Marc doesn’t come to visit his newborn daughter because his painting had taken an inspirational turn is raw and harrowing – she tries to tell him how painful the birth was, and he replies: ‘Do you thing what I do happens painlessly?’ Yet if those were the days that produced paintings we see as masterpieces, was that justified? There are no answers. It is a dilemma we still tussle over in the 21st century.

We do, though, see Marc change and grow. Throughout their marriage, he mocks and dismisses her interest in theatre, and her desire to write and to act. ‘I wish actors would just stop moving around so we could get to see the scenery better’ he says dismissively. (This of course raises a big laugh in the auditorium.) After Bella’s premature death – he lives on for many decades after her – he finds her notebooks, filled with her memoirs in Yiddish of her  and their life in Vitebsk, and says wonderingly: ‘We saw the same things, but with different eyes’ – finally acknowledging that rather than being an appendage to his creativity, she was a creative person in her own right.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebesk, which premiered in Bristol in 2016, is Emma Rice’s final production as artistic director of Kneehigh, and a fitting and fulfilling end to that particular chapter of her life. Having played at Shakespeare’s Globe (where Rice is currently artistic director, a role she will rescind in 2018) it is presented at the Traverse as part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase 2017.


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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.