A show about the evocative powers of art must be particularly effective in practicing what it preaches. Emma Rice’s final production with Kneehigh succeeds in being a delight for all the senses. A wonderful example of how theatre can synthesise the sister arts,
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is is a colourful and dynamic production - a fitting farewell for Emma Rice’s directorship.
The Flying Lovers tells the story of Chagall’s painting and life with his wife, Bella Rosenfeld. The two continue to create art and fall in love amid turbulent civil and world war. Chagall’s painting obsesses him, and Rosenfeld acts as both his spiritual muse and loathed anchor to reality. The production charts their journeys through different countries, politics, and times of their relationship. Their passionate lives make a vivid plot.
Rice takes inspiration from Chagall’s dynamic, naive and surreal images. The lovers are playful, lithely weaving around each other's bodies and forming visual quotes to his paintings. Music and dance are inspired by Russian Jewish traditions, and from the opening we hear lyrics in English, French, and German too. As with Chagall’s artwork, the eclecticism synthesises effortlessly. Kneehigh energises the stage with characteristic aplomb, and are equally as engaging when acting their dialogue as when singing a jazzy duet or dancing a joyous wedding chair-dance. Monologues are filled with choreographed movements: though their simplicity contributes to the overarching naivety of the production, these actions are sometimes rather reductive. Running when describing running, leaping when talking about flying, these did not live up to the inventiveness exhibited in the use of props and technical effects.
Given the potentially coterie subject matter, I was pleased to find that The Flying Lovers was more accessible than I was expecting it to be. The story did not rely on jargon or obscure references, and I overheard audience members exiting saying they had never seen or heard of Chagall before, but still heartily enjoyed the show. Art and history enthusiasts will still find much to engage with, especially in the witty homages to Chagall’s motifs. In this broad appeal, as in themes, I was reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. In rendering the life and paintings of Georges Seurat in the format of a musical, Sondheim is similarly concerned with synthesising the intellectual concerns of the artwork with its more inclusive, and arguably more important emotive impact.
Enjoyable for the casual audience member as for those with a specialist interest, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is is a colourful and dynamic production - a fitting farewell for Emma Rice’s directorship.