The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk by Kneehigh. Photograph: Steve Tanner
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is first and foremost a love story – one of the greatest of the 20th Century. Not least because the lives of the lovers (Marc Chagall and Bella Rosenfeld) so neatly coincided with the major historical events of the 20th Century. They were basically there, at all of them.
Marc Chagall was in Paris just before the First World War, when Modernism was at its height and Cubism was taking off. Then he briefly went to Russia and got stuck because of the war, and was nearly conscripted.
Marc and Bella were swept up in the Russian Revolution, and when they did finally make it back to Western Europe, they got caught up in the beginnings of the Holocaust. They luckily escaped from France to America. Their story and 20th century history are very closely interwoven.
But it’s also very current because it’s a lot to do with what it is to be a refugee. The writing is suffused with the sadness of exile. It’s particularly poignant when looking at footage of Homs or Mosul. For the people who’ve escaped from those places, even if they were able to return, what is there to return to? That sense of feeling homesick for something that no longer exists is quite a strong theme of the show.
I think that it’s always been poignant, historically, in light of the Holocaust, but there’s an added sadness at the moment. When we first made the show, we spent a lot of time with a Polish theatre company, Gardzienice, and we went into the forests of Belarus. That’s a couple of hundred miles from where Chagall grew up, and there are just the last few heartbreaking traces of Jewish life.
"Their story and 20th century history are very closely interwoven"
If you asked in the village about the Jewish past, people would shrug in an embarrassed way because it was within uncomfortable living memory. One woman took us into the woods, and we noticed, in the undergrowth, fragments of Jewish tombstones. When you consider that the Jewish population in that whole area of Eastern Europe represented at least a third of the population, and that’s totally disappeared now, that sadness continues to resonate.
On a simple level, one of the wonderful advantages of making a show about such an iconic painter is that Chagall arrived, in any nation we might go to, before us. There’s a familiarity with his work worldwide, particularly in Europe and France. He took French citizenship after the war, and his name is a French version of his Jewish name, which was Moishe Shagalov. Because of the notion of exile, it’s a very international story.
Although language plays a large part, the show is directed with the intention that there’s a kind of synesthaesia going on. The show is an intense mixture of song and a visual dimension. There’s a lot of English language in it, but those other aspects of storytelling make it quite a visceral experience for someone whose first language isn’t English.
"Because of the notion of exile, it’s a very international story"
It invites you in. It lays down a rug between your house and our house. There’s something connecting us. A lot of the songs are in other languages – there’s Yiddish and Russian and French. They singly don’t carry the experience, but it stamps the whole production with a sense that it’s an international thing. There’s a lot of spoken Yiddish in it, too – there’s a celebration of the different textures of language. Language is used not just to convey meaning but in a textural way, too. The language can be beautiful even if you don’t understand the words. It crosses boundaries in that way.
One things that’s quite unusual for a Kneehigh show is that it’s only got two people in it – it’s just Marc and Bella Chagall. And if you imagine the chutzpah of Kneehigh’s work on a kind of chamber scale… you’ve got the production values of a much bigger show, but then at its heart it’s a story of two people.
There’s a particularly strong connection between actors and audience, an intimacy to the experience, which I think will play really well in the festival setting. Some of the norms about how audiences and performers relate – the stuffy, building-based things you can’t escape, they kind of break down in a festival setting. I think this show will really thrive on that.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is at the Traverse Theatre from 15–27 August #EdShowcase