Between villages on the Belarusian-Polish border is a copse of trees, and beneath those trees hides a cemetery. When playwright Daniel Jamieson was led to the graveyard in the late 1980s by an elderly Polish woman, it took him a minute or two to recognize it for what it was.
“It was incredibly striking how the Jewish cemetery just seemed like a wood,” Jamieson recalled. “Shocking, really, because some of the dates on those stones were as recent as the 1930s.”
He was standing on the buried history of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, the same history that painter Marc Chagall preserved in his paintings of prewar life in the shtetl, or Jewish village, of Vitebsk, whose Jewish population was almost entirely eliminated during World War II.
Jamieson was so moved by his time in Poland, and his love of Chagall’s work, that he wrote “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” in 1992. Twenty-six years later, the Cornish theater company Kneehigh — a frequent visitor to Spoleto Festival USA, most recently with 2011’s “The Red Shoes” — is bringing “Flying Lovers” to this year’s festival.
Jamieson’s play captures the sights and sounds of prewar Jewish life through the story of Marc and Bella Chagall’s love, seeking to celebrate and preserve the once-vibrant culture that was destroyed by the wave of anti-Semitism that washed across Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. His script conveys the passion of the Chagalls’ marriage, the joy of Marc’s artwork and the tragedy of their historical circumstances. While revising the play for a 2016 revival, Jamieson uncovered additional layers of both Chagall’s history and his own.
The story of “Flying Lovers” begins with Marc and Bella’s first meeting in the shtetl in 1914 and ends with Bella’s death in New York City in 1944. The years of their love were among the most historically crowded of the 20th century: By the time the Chagalls escaped Europe and the Holocaust in 1941, they had already survived the Russian Revolution and World War I. When Chagall painted scenes of shtetl life in his vibrant style in the early 1900s, he unwittingly preserved a culture that would soon be almost completely wiped from the face of the Earth.
On stage, the story of the Chagalls’ lives has been realized in a swirl of color and chaos that evokes the painter’s style. The minimalist set was designed by sculptor Sophia Clist, who created a small, square stage tilted toward the audience and enclosed by a scaffold of birch branches that gives the space the appearance of a raft. “I wanted to make a really off-kilter structure to represent the whole massively disruptive period of time,” Clist said.
Adding to the maritime appearance are ropes dangling from the beams, which the actors use to recreate Chagall’s aerial compositions throughout the play. Along the same lines, the soundtrack is drawn from contemporary Russian folk song recordings as well as props and costumes that Clist said she “almost lifted out of his paintings.”
The original production of “Flying Lovers,” presented in 1992 by Theater Alibi, starred Jamieson himself as Marc Chagall and his then-wife Emma Rice as Bella. The play then lay dormant for more than 20 years before Rice, as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, decided to revive it in 2016. “The original version was the first play that I ever wrote,” Jamieson recalled. “And I more or less pleaded with her to let me do some rewrites.”
While Jamieson said he “quite archly rewrote” some of the wordier scenes, he also inserted historical details that were unavailable to him in the early 1990s. In the intervening years, art critic Jackie Wullschlager published “Chagall,” which Jamieson called “much more authoritative, much fuller, than any biography I’d been able to read the first time around.”
One crucial scene in “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” which involves Marc painting murals for the New Jewish Theater in Moscow, was added during the revision because the murals had just been rediscovered and were still in the process of being restored when Jamieson was writing the original version. Clist even incorporated imagery from one of these murals, “Dance,” into the set itself.
For Jamieson, revisiting the very personal play ended up being a strange yet healing experience. He said that “looking back at one’s younger self pretending and imagining what it would be like to be much older (was) comical and surreal.”
But mostly, he was struck by how much he had been able to intuit just from Chagall’s work, which is rich with the texture of memory. While the paintings of Marc Chagall celebrate a lost culture, “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” is at once a love story, a memorial and a celebration of the capacity of human memory.
Isaac Napell is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.