Although he likes to keep a low profile, Nicholas Wright has been a key figure in British theatre for the last four decades. Not only has he written a number of acclaimed plays, including the Olivier Award-winning Vincent in Brixton, Mrs Klein and The Reporter, as well as successful new versions of classic texts and the massive hit adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, he has also been an influential member of the theatre establishment itself, as the first director of the Royal Court Upstairs, Co-Artistic Director of the Royal Court in the mid-seventies and Literary Manager and then Associate Director of the National Theatre in the eighties and nineties. Not a bad CV you might say.
Now 71, Wright shows no sign of slowing down. His new play Travelling Light, opening at the Lyttelton Theatre this week, follows hot on the heels of The Last of the Duchess at Hampstead and Rattigan’s Nijinsky at Chichester. It is inspired by the huge impact immigrant Jewish film-makers made in Hollywood in the early twentieth century, focusing on a now-famous director looking back on the personal price he has had to pay for abandoning his roots in a village in Eastern Europe for the bright lights of the New World.
When I talk to Wright in a small back room at the National Theatre overlooking the Thames just before Christmas he seems totally at ease in a place that has become a second home to him over the last thirty years. Unfailingly courteous and disarmingly self-deprecating, he has spared time from his lunchtime break during the third week of rehearsals for Travelling Light. Speaking without any trace of the South African home he left more than 50 years ago, he says, “I’ve been in all the rehearsals so far, more than I usually would, partly because it’s very technical with a lot of fiddly stuff about cameras and editing so I need to be there to make some adjustments to the text. The play is punctuated with excerpts from a silent film which the character Motl Mendl has made in his Jewish village in the 1900s – and the director Nick Hytner is shooting some of this on location.”
As always with Wright, he tackles the big subject matter in a highly personal way. “I wanted to write about not so much about the cultural phenomenon of the Jewish contribution to cinema as about the cost of this uprooting on an individual artist and on those around him, and also about the paradox of it being necessary for him to leave his family home to achieve success even though his creative character stems from that very background.” He admits there are parallels with his own life: “I left Cape Town when I was 18 but as I’ve become older I’ve realised more and more how much that was my foundation.”