If you look closely at Emma Rice’s body of work – from Tristan and Yseult via A Matter of Life and Death and Brief Encounter – you’ll notice that one particular motif tends to recur throughout: an image of lovers elevated, suspended in mid-air by the power of their love. It is no wonder therefore that in making this show, Rice was drawn to another artist famous for celebrating aerial lovers – Marc Chagall.
As it happens, the actual flying lovers of the title are Chagall and his first wife Bella Rosenfeld, who gradually emerges as the real heroine of this story. Unlike many other artists of his age who used their muses as fleeting objects of inspiration, and their artistic egos as the ultimate justification for their reckless behaviours, Marc Chagall comes across in this somewhat cubist portrait as a shy, humble and mostly naïve Jewish man, a socially maladjusted dreamer with peasant roots and limitless aspirations. A perfect counterpoint to this is provided by his childhood sweetheart Bella, with her affluent background, sharp intellect, a pragmatic streak and total devotion to family over her own artistic ambitions.
The Chagalls’ love story – quite undramatic in itself but made dramatic by the political circumstances of the world wars, anti-Semitic prosecution and fear – is rendered in true Kneehigh style combining live music, singing, dancing and a metaphorically potent set in which everything is tilted and on the verge of defying gravity. Rice capitalises on a number of other affinities between Kneehigh and Chagall to bring this to life, namely rural landscapes, an interest in music and – tongue in cheek – his views on theatre (‘endless dreary words and pointless moving’).
Accompanied by multi-skilled musicians Ian Ross and James Gow, actors Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson put in evocative and impassioned performances, making this two-hander seem like a full ensemble piece. Playwright Daniel Jamieson’s script could be more dramaturgically defined to transcend the slightly patchy linear narrative format and clarify what exactly the piece is ultimately about. However, it is certainly a work worth seeing that will linger in memory for a long time to come.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is on at Traverse Theatre until 27th August. Click here for more details.