'My knowing you has already seeped backwards as well as forwards in time so my whole life is pervaded with the colour of loving you.'
Colours, planes and perspectives were the offerings tonight. Perspectives both literal and metaphorical, like those belonging to Bella Rosenfeld, the wife and muse of famous painter Marc Chagall, ever in his shadow until perhaps posthumously when her own talent as a writer was unearthed. Bella, a wealthy and educated Russian Jew, meets and falls in love with Marc in Vitebsk, a city in the former Russian Empire with 'two cathedrals and sixty synagogues'. This play charts their story, which played out during some of the most politically charged times of the twentieth century — including the Russian pogroms, revolution, and Nazi occupation — and which left them having to spend much of their lives in flight from persecution.
In his famous painting 'Birthday', Chagall painted himself and Bella flying together, 'as if their shared joy had such force it defied the laws of gravity itself,' says writer Daniel Jamieson, who conceived The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk over 25 years ago with producer, former Kneehigh director and ex-partner Emma Rice. In this performance, the perspective of the floating woman is brought to light. Her view on their lives, their perpetual uprooting, and the unravelling world around them is cleverly fashioned from her insights ('if war can be declared so easily, it must be a game'), her plaintive Yiddish songs that punctuate the dialogue, and the objects that would come to define Chagall’s art, such as a clock with a blue wing, which, in Bella’s world, comes to underscore her domestic rhythms of daytime monotony and nocturnal frenzy, as her husband devotes more and more of his waking hours to his art.
The cast of four (Marc Antolin, Daisy Maywood, James Gow and Ian Ross) superbly brought these perspectives to life through acting, song and dance. The music was rich yet understated where needed, and the beautifully fluid props, costumes and set further added to the dream-like feel of the evening, with a nod to the Cubism that flavours Chagall’s art. The Playhouse, one of my favourite venues in Oxford, also lived up to expectations, with its lovely bars, friendly staff, and comfortable seating.
'When some things are gone, you search for their details in the most heartbreaking way.'
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is also a play about exile. In one scene, arriving in yet another place Marc and Bella unpack their meagre belongings, one by one, carefully, lovingly, and line them up on the floor — an act so poignantly emblematic of the displaced body and yearning heart. In this sense, it is also a very modern play, but one that emphasises the preciousness of life and liberty. Perhaps it is even a call to action: to live and love, wholly and absurdly, like Bella and Marc, in the face of an absurd world. Bring tissues.