First, a memory: some time ago—maybe this time last year—maybe even longer— we were strolling along Oxford High Street on a sunny Sunday afternoon when we passed a commercial gallery that has been officially certified as stocking the Worst Paintings in the Entire World—you know, impossibly bad stuff: Highland cows with peekaboo fringes; saccharine-sweet studies of toddlers holding hands and playing nicely in cute hats; sleazy bedroom art of big-boobed temptresses in sub-Jack-Vettriano black-satin basques—you get the idea? 

Well, I glanced in the shop window, mildly curious to discover what new horrors the gallery was serving up, and my eye was immediately caught by two huge Chagall lithographs. One was a burst of scarlet and cadmium orange and flake white smudged with verdigris, depicting a musician clutching a lute-like instrument, a round-breasted dancer in a Columbine dress, and a circus juggler in baggy pantaloons and a buttoned tunic with a Pierrot collar. The other Chagall, to my mind, was yet more rapturously beautiful: an enchanted forest—populated with a pipe-playing angel and a red-tailed bird, a cockerel and a squiggly snake, a prancing goat and a pair of smiling human-faced lions— was rendered in luminous, swirling turquoise and green, amber, gold and vermillion. 

'Every time I climb the stairs or look up from my sofa, I am taken back in memory to that sunny afternoon in Oxford. They are talismans to conjure up a moment that’s past: a moment that might otherwise be lost amongst the hustle and bustle of everyday life'

The Chagalls were just two of a whole bunch of lithographs by such 20th-century luminaries as Henry Moore and LS Lowry, Picasso and Warhol, which were inexplicably for sale in a high-street shop whose clientele normally preferred a diet of Highland cattle and soft porn. I was utterly smitten. The Chagalls were both poster designs commissioned by the New York Met in the 1960s for the newly opened Lincoln Center and for a production of The Magic Flute


So happy was the day—and so unexpected was this discovery—that I ordered a glicée print of The Magic Flute lithograph a few days later to hang in my front room, and I have recently purchased a print of the other Chagall poster to stick on my landing. Now every time I climb the stairs or look up from my sofa, I am taken back in memory to that sunny afternoon in Oxford. They are talismans to conjure up a moment that’s past: a moment that might otherwise be lost amongst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

I have been thinking off and on about Chagall ever since that day—the goats and cows, flying fish and winged angels, the open windows and bouquets of flowers, the circus performers and aerial lovers—the way Chagall’s canvases glow with the vibrancy of dream. And I have also been thinking a lot about dreams recently for other reasons, too—mainly because I am not getting enough sleep at the moment and because my own dreams are always full of the semi-digested anxieties of my working life: turning up late for lessons still dressed in stripy jimjams or finding myself standing up in front of the class stark-bollock naked with all the parents and governors and senior management peering down from bleachers at my stumbling attempts to teach advanced calculus when I have prepared a lesson on the Petrarchan sonnet… It’s all a far cry from Chagall’s ecstatic dreamscapes. I wake up worn out.

Anyway, to return to the point, I was desperately keen to see The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk when it came to Oxford Playhouse last week. I’d first noticed the show when I was up in Edinburgh last summer, as it had a nice poster and I like Chagall. But the play opened after I left the city, so I missed out during the Fringe, and Kneehigh Theatre’s production went on to win the Best of Edinburgh Award. All this made me even more determined to catch the show when it started touring. And see it I did—even if it was on the second attempt: I was actually too weary from work to keep awake on the Friday evening, and had to buy another, second ticket for the Saturday matinee. But this show surpassed all my expectations: it was beautiful, funny and profoundly moving.


The production kicked off with a white-faced and tousle-haired Chagall huddling together with the musicians to sing ‘I’m Making Believe’ at the side of the stage. It was not long before he was joined on a wonkily pitched bare stage by his lover and muse, Bella. But what was most striking about their rendition of this old Ella Fitzgerald standard was the huge intervals separating Chagall’s baritone and Bella’s high soprano as they sang together:

I'm making believe that you're in my arms, though I know you're so far away;
Making believe I'm talking to you, wish you could hear what I say;
And here in the gloom of my lonely room, we're dancing like we used to do;
Making believe is just another way of dreaming, so till my dreams come true.

The intervals separating the voices in the harmony seemed to me emblematic of the distance separating the lovers: for despite the physical proximity of Bella and Chagall at the beginning of the play on the stage, this is a story about the longing that separation brings, the yearning for what is absent or lost. 


At first, it is simply the distance that divides the young painter studying in Paris from his beloved fiancée, waiting patiently for him back home in Russia. But almost immediately we see that what is most longed for is the past: a prelapsian world that persists in memory and dream, but has been destroyed by war and revolution, genocidal violence and hate-filled political ideology. Seeking to explain over the telephone to a pseudy critic why people paint anything, all Chagall can do is to produce a black-and-white postcard of Vitebsk, his hometown in 1914:

Two cathedrals, it had. And sixty synagogues… You know, they flattened it in the war, the Nazis. And for those that never knew it, this is all that remains—black-and-white postcards.

So, this was the fate of Vitebsk—and what we see in Chagall’s glowing dream-like canvases full of cows and cockerels and flying fishes, gardens and violin-playing goats, big candles for the Day of Atonement and ‘wall-clocks with brass swords for pendulums’—are memories of a lost city, pieced together by dream, like fragments of a broken stained-glass window. 

‘When some things are gone,’ continues Chagall, ‘you thirst for their details in such a heart-breaking way… you feel an agony of need to remember… Perhaps the smell of a room in a house that has been razed to the ground for twenty years.’ Forgetting his pretentious friend left hanging on the telephone, Chagall confesses to the audience: ‘Shall I tell you a secret? In 1914, Vitebsk wasn’t black and white at all. The light was actually green in my eyes! And gold! And sometimes faintly lilac!’


In the first of a series of brilliant visual gags, one of the musicians at this point shines an electric torch through different colour lighting filters on to the powdered, white face of the dreaming painter, as he begins a sequence of Proustian recollections: ‘The air… the smell of dung! Because we all kept cows in our back yards! What else? I smell… cinnamon in something baking… and smoke from the lamp—that wick needs a trim… and Mamma is frying meatballs…  My God, you know what that is, don’t you? The samovar just starting to bubble!’

Amongst the lost time through which he rummages so obsessively, the most precious moments Chagall picks out to fill his glowing canvases are memories of the painter’s meeting with his future wife, Bella. The open windows and the bouquets of flowers, the moonlit gardens and flying lovers, are all motifs drawn from their passionate courtship. This is the Eden from which the painter has been ejected, and to which he ever after seeks to return in memory. After the bittersweet opening duet, ‘I’m Making Believe’, with its widely spaced soprano and baritone parts, the musicians join Bella and Chagall on stage to sing a Yiddish love song in close harmony. 

This chorus—with its lushly beautiful Eastern chromaticism—represents, for me, all that’s been lost: the erotic union of lovers; a community smashed by war and revolution and genocidal violence; a world of the sensuous delight unmediated by memory and longing and dream. The opening number, ‘I’m Making Believe’, will be reprised later in Ian Ross’s score as a gramophone record to which Bella and Marc dance after the destruction of Vitebsk, and when Bella finally dies of a fever, her heartbroken husband is left with just the needle clicking at the end of the groove.


It would have been easy for Daniel Jamieson’s play to have drowned in a morass of sentimentality. But under Emma Rice’s direction, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is full of whimsical humour and madcap physical theatre. On the surface, Bella is a respectable Jewish girl with bobbed hair and a severe black-and-white tunic dress, but her passionate nature pokes mischievously out from behind this dour exterior in the shape of her shocking pink stockings. Sitting astride a kitchen chair, these pink stockings take on a life of their own, as Bella mimes her memory of meeting Chagall for the first time: ‘He’d climbed inside me and was running along beside me.’ A moment later, Bella and Marc share a hilarious dance in which surrealism collides with vaudeville slapstick: the lovers wear chairs around their laps and start high-kicking to the music with pink-stockinged false legs. And after their blissful 

honeymoon in rural Belarus—rechristened a milkmoon by the lovers—Chagall and his bride wear flying fish and cockerel hats and are handed long synagogue candles and brightly coloured effigies of cows to hold.


We are also given some stark reminders of the selfishness of an artist’s obsession and the thanklessness of being a muse. Bella is livid when Chagall leaves her to give birth to his daughter alone, returning four days too late due to the opening of an exhibition of his work. And when Bella takes to writing her own reminiscences of Vitebsk in her notebooks, the painter thoughtlessly tears out a couple of pages to make a paper butterfly to amuse the baby. Yes, Chagall tells us how later, after Bella had died, he finally found time to read Bella’s notebooks and persuaded their daughter, Ida, to translate the vivid Yiddish into French, whilst he provided illustrations. But he admits it had never before occurred to him that, ‘though we saw the same things, she saw them through her own eyes’ and ‘his heart broke again because she had died so hidden—like all those other Yiddish souls, snuffed out before half their light was shed’. In the final, unforgettable image of the play, the shade of Bella returns to sit smiling beside Chagall, wearing folded wings covered by her writing: the paper butterfly has been transformed into the wings of an angel—one of the other central motifs of Chagall’s dream-art. She smiles her elfin smile and the couple eat fish balls together.


Soon after the play’s opening, Bella’s mother—played for laughs by Chagall with a veil draped over his head—keeps Tishah b’Av, weeping over the destruction of the Temple (and her many other woes). This is an apt metaphor for the whole play and for Chagall’s work—only Chagall did not weep for the destruction of Vitebsk, just as he did not weep for his exile from his homeland, or for his separation from his wife. Even when he lost her forever to death, he did not weep—instead he remembered and he longed and he dreamed and he painted. And maybe this takes us to the answer to the question he asked at the beginning of the play.


Why does one paint anything? 


Well, maybe it’s the same impulse that made me buy my reproductions of the Chagall lithographs: an attempt to cling on to a moment that one dreads losing, an attempt to rescue time from oblivion, an attempt to bring before the eye something that is heartbreakingly absent. For me, it was simply a sunny day window-shopping in Oxford: for Bella and Chagall, it was a birthday that Marc had forgotten and which she arrived at his window, unexpected and unannounced, to present him with a bunch of flowers. As Bella dies in Chagall’s arms, the painter hails this memory, ‘That moment on that day… I needed no more perfect moment than that…’


Why does one paint anything? Why does one make anything, for that matter?


From a Petrarchan sonnet to a painting of a lover bearing flowers to the figures carved on a Grecian urn, it all comes down to the same basic primal need. Keats’ lover is held for all eternity in the marble walls of the urn, ‘For ever panting and for ever young’, as he pursues a fleeing maiden, but the poet consoles him: ‘Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;/ She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair.’ But what if the ‘peaceful citadel’ Keats imagined had not been emptied of folk by the celebration an ecstatic pagan rite, but had been instead seen its population massacred in their thousands in a ghetto? What if their temples had been first shut down by Communists and then pounded into rubble by Nazi artillery? And what if the lover had been separated by war and revolution from the maiden he once so boldly pursued, and had seen her die of a mere staphylococcus infection because there was no penicillin to be had?


Would Keats’s lover, in such circumstances, be content to be frozen into marble—never lamenting the ashes the urn once contained—or would he labour for the rest of his life to recreate that ‘perfect moment’ in his own work of art? 


The Greeks were right to consider Memory the mother of the Muses: each stroke of the brush, each letter written on a sheet of perfect white paper, is an attempt to defeat time and overcome absence and death. It is a stand against oblivion: an attempt to capture and make permanent ‘the rainbow of the salt sand-wave’, ‘or the wealth of globed peonies’ or ‘the peerless eyes’ of a mistress’s eyes—to quote my beloved Keats again—simply because the sorrow of that beauty dying is too heartbreakingly sad for the poet's sorrow ever to be glutted. Every artist must journey like Orpheus into the Underworld of his imagination to bring back whatever he can from the past: the scent of cinnamon baking, the taste of fish balls, flowers and an open window, or indeed a lost lover. 

'The open windows and the bouquets of flowers, the moonlit gardens and flying lovers, are all motifs drawn from Marc's and Bella's 

passionate courtship. This is the Eden from which the painter has been ejected, and to which he ever after seeks to return in memory'

'The Greeks were right to consider Memory the mother of the Muses: each stroke of the brush, each letter written on a sheet of perfect white paper, is an attempt to defeat time and overcome absence and death'