The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Last week I travelled to the Lost Gardens of Heligan to see Kneehigh Theatre’s latest offering, the Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. Perhaps it wasn’t  to everyone’s taste. I went alone and the people seated on either side of me didn’t return after the interval. Their loss, in my opinion.

I suppose many expect certain things of Kneehigh, particularly the Cornish audiences. They expect slapstick humour, music, audience involvement – at least by frequent direct address to them from the actors – comical dances, often from a chorus of characters and witty reversals from comedy to plucking at the heart-strings. But some of the shows have a different trajectory, and this was one.

I loved it! There is always something to engage you in Kneehigh and, personally, I like it even more when they explore the darker side. I’ve never forgotten the ending of the Bacchae, or Tristan and Yseult in both of which the comic coin flips upside down and reveals its tragic underside.

The Flying Lovers are the artist Marc Chagall and his wife Bella. The play, written by Daniel Jamieson under the different title Birthday, follows their life-story from their falling in love in their home-town, Vitebsk, through two wars, persecution of the Jews – they were both Jewish – brief success as an artist in Moscow, Paris, the USA… Chagall’s growing fame, to Bella’s death and Marc’s release of her spirit through acknowledgement of her own creativity.

The set [designed by Sophia Clist] was constructed of wooden poles, not straight or upright but crazily leaning and crossing over each other, suggesting the outlines of buildings, windows, doors, as in Chagall’s own paintings. To the poles were attached most of the props needed in the show [though some were thrown to them by the two musicians]. The floor of the set sloped wonkily, like the inside of an old attic. Like all Kneehigh sets, it was clever, idiosyncratic and useful – though one or two of the audience may have found they needed to peer round a crossed-over pole at times.

Far more than usual the show was largely danced and sung. Rather than musical interludes being strung together by dialogue, this was reversed. In a previous production, The Wild Bride, Kneehigh had moved towards this recipe; this production moved even further in the direction of music and dance. The two members of the cast – Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson [who also sung and played as the bride in The Wild Bride] had beautiful clear voices and moved with charm and restraint. They were wonderfully accompanied by Ian Ross and James Gow as musicians, who occasionally swelled out the scene as characters, such as marching soldiers. The music, witty and veering between a period jazz feel and the haunting melancholy of Yiddish music, underlined the entire show. It was a musical backdrop that helped with a sense of time and place as well as with mood.

I loved some of the more subtle touches: the placing of pairs of shoes around the stage, to mark the couple’s constant travelling, for instance. As an image, it also subtly suggested the piles of empty shoes found at the Nazi death camps, underlying both their Jewishness and the enduring archetype of the Wandering Jew. Nice!

The strong love that bound the pair was shown through dance movements and held positions that echoed Chagall’s own flying figures. I felt that the movement reflected the tension in the play between joyful creation, which liberates the artist, and the shackles of misunderstanding, poverty, the ties of father/motherhood. When all goes well with the characters: their early love, occasional successes, and happinesses, the artist flies. At times he flies in partnership with Bella. But it is not till her writing is discovered and liberated towards the end of the piece that Bella too ‘flies’ as an artist in her own right.

Not an easy piece to put over, it contained plenty of comedic touches in the first half, plus the charm and joy of the young lovers and the freedom of their movements. But life gets its teeth into them and the second half is less successful. Perhaps to encompass a whole life’s journey is too much. There was not much Kneehigh laughter after the interval, but it would have been out of place. I enjoyed the piece immensely, but I can understand how casual visitors might have found the experience unexpected and hard to grasp.