On 6 July 1915, a few weeks before their wedding, Bella Rosenfeld arrived at Marc Chagall’s house in Vitebsk, carrying a bouquet of flowers wrapped in several colourful shawls. It was his birthday – not a day he’d ever particularly celebrated – but she was determined to make it special, not least because her wealthy family had been grumbling about the match between a master jeweller’s daughter and a penniless artist. This moment – a gesture of love and acceptance; an offering – would resonate throughout both their lives and it forms one of the key scenes in Daniel Jamieson’s colourful, playful, poignant, meltingly romantic play, which is currently on tour. J and I saw it in the faded glory of Wilton’s, where it seems to fit perfectly: a magical glimpse of a lost age, a two-man show dominated by splendid performances and simplicity.
More than thirty years later, Bella could still recall the charge fizzing between them on that day in 1915: ‘Suddenly,’ she wrote in her memoirs, ‘you tear me from the earth, you yourself take off from one foot. You rise, you stretch your limbs, you float up to the ceiling. Your head turns about and you make mine turn. You brush my ear and murmur.’ A writer and poet, she naturally turned to words to capture her emotions; her husband, one of the most charming and fanciful painters of the 20th century, turned to art. His painted record of the scene, finished two years later, shows the lovers transported by the force of their feelings, anatomical possibility subsumed in the need for romantic expression. This sense of exhilaration was perfectly captured in the show, which employed a blend of dance, song and physical theatre to tell its story.
We meet the young couple in 1909, when Bella first encounters Chagall at the house of her friend’s father, the local doctor. It’s love at first sight, although the adolescent Bella has to learn patience when her new beau hares off to Paris to make his fortune. But Marc returns, to make good on his promises to her, leaving behind his paintings in the care of his agent. His new status as a bright young thing means that her family are more accepting than they might otherwise have been – but, in any case, what does love care for convention? The lovers are swept up one in the other, both dreaming the same dreams, which Chagall captures in fantastical canvases, brimming with colour.
But the world breaks in, even upon the most all-consuming dreams, and the shadow of the First World War stretches across Vitebsk. The Chagalls flee to St Petersburg, where they struggle to make ends meet; and here they find themselves caught up in the Russian Revolution, the overturning of all they’ve ever known. For a moment, it looks as though Marc’s gifts will be recognised by the new regime, but prejudice resurfaces. As Europe simmers on the brink of further conflict, it becomes ever harder to be Jewish. As anti-Semitic attacks spread, and the Vitebsk they knew begins to fade, Marc and Bella start to look for new dreams – and new beginnings – somewhere else.
The first thing to say is that the show looks absolutely gorgeous. With a very limited set, and a backdrop formed of a screen flooded with block colour, the director Emma Rice manages to convey the essence of Chagall’s paintings. Green cows, red roosters and flying fish all make an appearance. Although I lamented the absence of a flying goat playing a violin, I may just have missed it: J thought there was one on a banner about halfway through. The vivid colouring is matched by the striking music: there are plangent Russian folk songs, exuberant dances and haunting melodies which weave themselves as leitmotifs throughout the action, setting or recalling a mood. The result is something which manages to be moving while still preserving the joyous vibrancy of Chagall’s work as an artist, and the constancy of his romance with Bella.
Yet Jamieson’s lovers aren’t blessed with simpering happiness. On the contrary, they’re both formidably creative and their lives are marked by that tension. Bella, who yearns to capture her people’s soul through Yiddish poetry, feels that her own satisfaction always comes second to Marc’s obsessive pursuit of his art. (Not to mention the care of her greatest creation, their daughter Ida.) When they move to Moscow, she revels in the chance to join an acting class and express herself again. Marc, relegated (as he sees it) to scene painter, sulks in the shadows. They also have very different views on how they should tackle persecution. Bella wants to act, to make a stand, to protect those who are being hurt. Marc feels that a painter can best challenge intolerance by translating his emotions into art. Yet, even in the face of storms, their relationship endures.
I can best describe the style as being like a 1920s silent film. The actors both looked the part, in white-face make-up and rouge. Bella (Daisy Maywood) was gamine and coltish, with a Louise Brooks-style bob and a little black dress (with white collar and cuffs) taken straight from Chagall’s pictures. She beautifully portrayed the growing maturity of this talented but stifled woman, proud of her husband but increasingly longing for visibility of her own. Marc himself (Marc Antolin) was lanky and tousle-headed, again costumed from the Birthday: oversized green jacket; dark slacks; spats on his shoes. Compare the costume worn by the young artist in this early portrait (c.1915) by his teacher Yehuda Pen. His lines were delivered in a soft Welsh accent that probably isn’t entirely accurate for Chagall but was very charming nonetheless. Fortunately there was great chemistry between the two: with a play this intimate, it’s crucial for you to believe in the connection, as you’re swept in a mere ninety minutes from 1909 to 1944 (and beyond).
And there were lots of other things I liked, such as the fact the play emphasised the Chagalls’ partnership, rather than portraying Bella merely as a passive muse to her artist husband. Jamieson gave space to Bella’s brilliance as well as Marc’s; and I appreciated the decision to finish with a coda, in which the elderly Marc spoke of publishing Bella’s works at last, in the collection Burning Lights, to which he contributed line-drawings. I’m now keen to read her work, and to learn a little more about Chagall – to whom I always gravitate in art galleries, but about whom I know shamefully little.
As an art historian, I was also amused by the first scene, in which the older Marc is called up by his agent. It demonstrates how the art establishment, in its eagerness to validate its own existence, often makes a work of art far more complicated than it has to be. The agent wants to discuss Marc’s work over the phone. He embarks on a particularly convoluted theoretical deconstruction. Does Marc agree? Marc is gently baffled. He has painted for love. Almost everything he’s done has been painted for Bella, to celebrate the life they’ve made together. And that, essentially, is the heart of the play: an argument for art as an expression of powerful, eternal things that sometimes can’t be understood in any other way, no matter how much jargon you use.
Had J not suggested it, I’d probably have missed this little show and would have been the poorer for it. It’s on at Wilton’s until 10 February so, if you’re in London, you still have a little time. It then goes on tour in the UK, Europe and the US: you can check out the dates on the link I’ve given below. Do go to see it if you can, if you’re interested by early 20th century history; Jewish life in Russia; art; love stories; or simply vivid theatre that weaves different kinds of performance together into one enchanting whole. Ironically, the Flying Lovers won’t be playing anywhere on Valentine’s Day, but never mind: it’s a perfect bijou little confection to warm the heart at any time of year.