The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk - review

A couple of scenes in this play wound me up. In one the painter Marc Chagall is dismissive of his wife Bella’s talents and says, “You’ll never be a writer because you’re always thinking about something else”. In another he’s four days late coming home following the birth of their daughter because he’s been immersed in his painting. When Bella tells him how painful the birth was and that she can hardly walk he says, “Do you think what I do happens painlessly?”.

The Flying Lovers is director Emma Rice’s final play for Kneehigh Theatre and tells the story of the surrealist painter Marc Chagall and his wife Bella Rosenfeld, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family who own several jewellery shops in Vitebsk, Belarus. They go through several events together – two world wars, the Russian Revolution and the persecution of the Jews which drives them out of Russia to seek refuge elsewhere. I love this painting by Chagall, the inspiration for the cover photo from the play, which captures a freedom of spirit and their feelings for one another. Chagall believed that freedom of the soul led to more abstract work.

It’s a small cast – just four actors on stage – Marc and Bella (Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson) and two musicians (composer Ian Ross and multi instrumentalist James Gow) who play beautiful, haunting music and take on different roles throughout. The first half is joyful to watch: funny, sexy; a riot of colour that introduces both characters and tells us how they met. Various scenes are played out around an imaginative tent pole created by Sophia Clist. The mood is expansive and full of possibilities as they get to know one another.

Chagall is restless though and building his career so goes off to Paris to discover new art movements – Fauvism and Cubism – he wants to be taken seriously as a painter in his own country and for this he needs to leave and exhibit elsewhere in Europe. Bella stays home convinced that he’s discovering other women too. After a few years he returns and they marry.

The mood become more sombre in the second half as they flee to St Petersburg so he doesn’t have to do service. The reality of married life sets in, Bella at home alone in their damp flat counting down the hours until he returns and they can “create a new colour together”. A smart and educated woman, she’s aware that she has been his muse and the inspiration for much of his work (“My whole life is pervaded by the colour of loving you”), but at the end of the day it’s his name at the bottom of the canvas and “what shall I do?”.

She starts keeping a journal and at the same time discovers that she’s pregnant, her initial surprise turning into creativity as she immerses herself in her writing.

On the surface this seems like a simple play, a little clichéd in parts – starving artist meets wealthy woman who becomes his lover and muse, but there are several themes running throughout which are just as relevant today: what it means to be married, an artist, a mother, private versus public life, loss of identity and homeland, loneliness, and the hidden side of lives that are not in the public eye.

How gutting that as they finally get some stability and peace in New York Bella becomes ill and dies at 56 from lack of suitable medication. Chagall goes into mourning and realises how wrapped up he’s been in his own work. He publishes her Yiddish memoirs with their daughter’s help. It’s also sad that it’s only after she’s gone that he realises how vivid her writing is and that although they saw the same things in life it was through different eyes.

It didn’t move me to tears as some of their other plays have but this is a story worth telling and even more relevant today with the movement of people across Europe. It is an intimate and personal tribute from Emma Rice to the theatre company she has loved and grown with over the past few years.

At the Lost Gardens of Heligan, St Austell from Thursday 14th to Sunday 31st July 2016.

Some of Marc Chagall’s paintings are on display for two months in Vitebsk.