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The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – Return to Vitebsk with Daniel Jamieson

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Read more on The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – Return to Vitebsk with Daniel Jamieson from the Kneehigh Cookbook archive.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, telling the story of Marc and Bella Chagall, comes to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse this summer. The writer Daniel Jamieson looks back on the plays origins and the extraordinary lives and times that inspired it.

We made the first version of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, then called Birthday, more than 20 years ago. Emma Rice, Nikki Sved and I had been working together as young actors for a company called Theatre Alibi. Afterwards we wanted to make something of our own, so we cast about for the perfect subject and hit upon the Chagalls. At the beginning the attraction was to the paintings, which seemed intrinsically theatrical to us, or theatrical in a way that we dreamt of being sensuous, lyrical, flying At the time we were inspired by a visit wed made with Alibi, thanks to directors Alison Hodge and Tim Spicer, to the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices in Poland. Gardzienices work was unlike anything wed seen before, a powerful torrent of song, language and gravity-defying movement. There seemed an irresistible connection between Gardzienices style and Chagall. One night, watching them work, one of their actresses leapt and perched like a cat on the shoulder of a double bass. Look! said their director Włodzimierz Staniewski, Pure Chagall!

The more we discovered about the Chagalls, the richer we found their story. Marc was born Moyshe Shagall in a poor Jewish quarter of Vitebsk in Belarus in 1887. His life and work were full of contradictions. Most Jewish artists at the time turned their backs on their shtetl upbringing, but Marc put his hometown at the heart of his work throughout his life, even after 60 years in exile. Yet his outlook was determinedly cosmopolitan from the outset and from an early age he yearned for a new style of painting beyond realism with which to express himself. Marc met Bella Rosenfeld in 1909 at a mutual friends house in Vitebsk and they swiftly fell in love. That Bella, aged only 20, was astute enough to recognise Marcs talent then was testament as much to her perceptiveness as his precocious genius. Bella was quite a catch for Marc too she came from a well-to-do family who owned three jewellery shops in Vitebsk but more importantly, she was extremely bright and cultured, one of the top four students to graduate from school in her year in Russia. She studied literature, history and philosophy at the prestigious Guerrier University in Moscow and even took acting classes with Stanislavsky. She dreamt of being an actress and a writer, but tragically, when she met Chagall she threw all her creative energies into nurturing his talent. In 1911, leaving Bella in Russia, Marc made it to Paris and drank up every innovation going Fauvism and Cubism particularly. Quickly assimilating these influences, he added something unique of his own to the mix the expression for the first time of an inner life on canvas. Under his influence, metaphor made its triumphal entry into modern painting, Andre Breton said later, and credited Chagall as the father of surrealism.

In exile, Marc and Bella watched in horror as the Jewish homeland of their youth was systematically destroyed first by the Communists

Marc returned to Vitebsk in 1914 to marry Bella and bring her back to Paris, but they were trapped in Russia by the outbreak of the First World War. They moved to Petersburg and witnessed the February and October Revolutions at close quarters. For a brief, heady moment the avant-garde became the new establishment in Russian art and Marc was invited to be Commissar of Visual Arts by the new Bolshevik government. Bella sensibly advised him to say no but he accepted the offer to start a new art school in Vitebsk, which he hoped would give those from humble backgrounds like himself the chance to become artist-proletarians. However, official opinion quickly began to harden about what was proper proletarian art and it soon became clear that Marc’s sensual and individual style was not. He was forced to resign from the school and, apart from a brief, joyful stint designing sets for the Jewish Theatre in Moscow, he now found his work unwelcome in Russia. He, Bella and their five year-old daughter Ida left in 1922, never to return. While Marc’s fame subsequently grew and grew abroad, he was never recognised at home as he yearned to be.

In exile, Marc and Bella watched in horror as the Jewish homeland of their youth was systematically destroyed first by the Communists, then by the Nazis. Antisemitism flared in Russia and Germany throughout the twenties and thirties and led eventually to the attempted murder of the entire Jewish population of Europe. The culture Marc had set out to celebrate he unintentionally ended up memorialising. They were forced to flee, first to the south of France, then to America. Only in the last couple of years of her life in New York did Bella finally find the confidence to write a lyrical memoir in Yiddish of her childhood in Vitebsk Burning Lights. After Bellas death aged only 56, Marc seemed at last to wake up to her vision and the debt he owed it. For years her love influenced my painting. Yet I felt there was something within her held back, unexpressed her words and phrases were a wash of colour over a canvas. Marc had lost not only his muse and collaborator, but also his last living link to the Jewish world of his youth.

The residents of Homs, like the Chagalls and the millions of other Jews uprooted by 20th century history, find themselves in the unbearable predicament of being homesick for a home that no longer exists.

When Emma, Nikki and I visited Poland in 1990, only faint traces of this world remained. Gardzienices actors took us on expeditions into remote corners of the country to gather songs and stories. I went to the forests on the border between Belarus and Poland just a few hundred miles from Vitebsk. The higgledy-piggledy wooden houses, birch forests and horse-drawn carts of Chagalls paintings were all abundantly still in evidence, but all that seemed left of the Jewish past was a sheepish shrug on the part of the older residents. However, one evening an old woman took us to a small copse just outside a village. She led us right to the middle of the wood. What were we supposed to see, we wondered? She pointed under our feet. In the twilight, between the roots and ferns, we began to notice fragments of tombstones everywhere inscribed in Hebrew script. We were standing in the remains of a Jewish cemetery. During and after the war gravestones were shamefully plundered as building materials for everything from roads to pigsties. But plenty remained, some with dates as late as the 1930s. Here lay the last Jews in the homeland of the Chagalls.

And now Europe is full of refugees once again. Watching footage shot from a drone flying over the ruined city of Homs, its hard to imagine when the millions of Syrians displaced will be able to return. The residents of Homs, like the Chagalls and the millions of other Jews uprooted by 20th-century history, find themselves in the unbearable predicament of being homesick for a home that no longer exists. But it also feels right to return to the Chagalls story on a more personal level too. We first made the show when we were in our twenties. We particularly identified with the young Chagalls at the time, with the collision between their passion for each other and their need to express themselves as individuals. Now its easier to feel an empathy for the old Marc Chagall too, who looks back and strives to evoke something of how it felt to be young and in love in a world long gone.

Daniel Jamieson is a playwright. Previously an actor and an artistic director, he has been an associate writer with Theatre Alibi since 2000.

This article first appeared in the summer 2016 issue of Around the Globe, the membership magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe.

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