The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk Becomes a Marriage of Love and Colours

Kneehigh kicks off 2018 with one of their most poetic productions. Written in 1992 by Daniel Jamieson, the work bears the directing signature of Emma Rice, both of whom performed in the original production.

The theatre piece beautifully brings to life the art of the French-Russian modernist Marc Chagall. Set in a small city in Belarus, once under the Russian authority, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk tries to communicate the colours and undying passion of a couple, united in a dreamy dance, against the horrors of the nineteenth century.

Bella and Marc meet for the first time in the waiting room of the local doctor’s studio. It was love at first sight but the clumsy painter soon left for Paris in search of fortune. Only on his return, do the lovers tie the knot. Even their wedding night, though, couldn’t pass peacefully: Chagall was called to serve the army in the wake of the First World War.

After fleeing to Saint Petersbourg, the couple find a sort of temporary, although starving, existence. They have a child together - Aida, a miracle of life at the moment when Russia is destabilised by the revolution. Initially liked by the Bolshevik for his art - almost a dream become true - Chagall sees the new order as a place where he can flourish as an artist. But fresh turmoils force them to flee once again.

After so much upheaval, Western Europe eventually becomes the final stop for the flying lovers, who have lost hope in finding a stable home. Among the lines written on Bella’s notebooks and drawn on Marc’s canvas, the show closes in the glowing colours and beautiful songs that have been integral part of the lovers’ lives.

The challenge is high: 90 minutes with only two actors on the stage, few interventions by the musicians, and melancholic songs for a heart-breaking love story during wartime and revolution. However, with their distinctive legend-like style, Kneehigh superbly deliver this wonderful story. As other productions by this innovative theatre company (see our review of Tristan and Yseult), The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk’s narrative goes beyond the romantic plot: it transcends the border of the individual to reach the heart of the public, whether in love or not, to speak of humanity.

“We see the same things, but with different eyes”

It’s a story that talks about migration, society labelling, prejudices, the havoc of conflicts, and the everlasting strength of passions.

There is something old and enchanting in the gallery of the Wilton’s Music Hall that perfectly matches the setting of this show. The oblique stage, the slanted poles, the ropes hanging are appropriate to an expressionist painting.

The play is as airy as the flying subjects in Chagall’s works. The life events are told in first person, directly projected towards the audience, like we were their friends. The songs alternate with smooth choreography of the two bodies’ flips and twists. There are not violent gestures, rather soft movements following the swifts of the brushes on the canvas.

Every episode is candidly coloured, with vivid tints, like Chagall would have seen it. “We see the same things, but with different eyes” is one of the most memorable lines of the script. Indeed, brought to glorious highs by their creatives souls, the two professed different arts: one in drawing, the other in writing.

Never in the play their artistry or their sanity in pursuing such passions are questioned, but in one scene: the meeting with family members and friends at their wedding. “Jewish painter?” Bella reported she was asked or nodded on by many. Ethnicity and job: the two big boxes in which society is still easy to sort people.

Vibrant tones are used for some of the clothing, such as Bella’s pink stockings or Marc’s green jacket, but otherwise the lovers wear dark and snowy nuances. As interesting is the choice of the doll-like make-up: the white faces stick out and enhances the expressions like Pierrots.

Instead of the historic settings, the couple moves in an dreamy atmosphere: they live in the world as they see it, with green cows and red roosters. The stage becomes a battle scene, where the triumph of colours has to wrestle with the grey and gloomy tones of the war. Colour becomes a metaphor for life.

“We have to pack all the things we love of Vitebsk into our minds,” Bella encourages her husband when they are forced to flee again because of the looming Jewish persecution. Here is the ever-present drama of the many involuntary migrant who have to be expunged from their birthplace against their will. They cannot honour familiar bonds away from the homeland, they cannot find a settled status because of the brutal whim of the few in command.

Art is the only healer against this oppressing world. Where everything moves towards destruction, creativity and love can make life brighter. The tender story by Kneehigh offers a poetic window on the past which gives hope for the future.



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