The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

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The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
Published 18 Aug 2017

No one painted love like Marc Chagall. On his colourful canvases, couples sweep each other off their feet and up into the air. They soar over cities, arm in arm, leaving the rest of the world behind them. They are, one critic reckons, “a banner to collective love”.

Emma Rice’s final Kneehigh show offers a more prosaic and personal take, rooting those helium-headed romantics in Chagall’s lifelong love for his wife, Bella. It follows the pair from their first flutters of love through the tumult of 20th-century Russia – revolution, Communist rule, pogroms and war. As Jews, they’re forced into a different kind of flight altogether.

Kneehigh delicately express the way the world weighs us down. As young lovers, Audrey Bisson and Marc Antolin’s toes hardly touch the ground. They’re the colour in each other’s lives—vivid pink and bright green in Sophia Clist’s design—as, bit by bit, the two of them become one. His ambition and art, however, prize them apart. Bella, a writer in her own right, sinks into motherhood at home and the violent upheaval around them turns the world grey.

It’s a show that wears its lessons lightly, as the Chagalls are carried by the currents of global events. Their lightness, as clowns, rubs against the heaviness of history, and Ian Ross’s eloquent score infuses the whole thing with rich melancholy. Rice’s fleet direction is deceptively simple and she crams a straightforward love story full of complex ideas.