Like current films The Artist and Hugo, Nicholas Wright’s new play is a tribute to the magic of silent cinema, but it’s also a commemoration of the Jewish way of life in Europe which was terminated so horrifically in the Holocaust. Travelling Light follows the journey of one fictitious film director, representing the extraordinary contribution Jewish immigrants made to establishing Hollywood as a global brand, whose success comes at the cost of uprooting himself from the culture that gave him his creative inspiration.
Moving between a shteltl in Eastern Europe in the 1900s and Hollywood in 1936, the story is narrated by Maurice Montgomery, a famous film-maker who looks back at the first faltering steps in his career as the young Motl Mendl. We see him initially experimenting with a Lumière cinématographe, left to him by his recently deceased photographer father, filming simple scenes of village life. Bankrolled by charismatic local sawmill owner Jacob and assisted by the bright, pretty Anna, with whom he falls in love, Motl hits on the idea of making a tear-jerking melodrama whose characters everybody will identify with and want to pay to see.
Wright has much fun showing how the staples of the movie business – the close-up, montage, the cinema, preview audiences – are ‘invented’, as well as the fluctuating dynamics between director, producer and editor turned actress. Not only does Motl have to contend with Jacob’s interference in his ‘artistic integrity’, but also his rival affections for Anna, setting up a conflict between staying close to his roots and chasing his dreams in the wider world.
The play delightfully presents the ‘discoveries’ of filmmaking amid a developing romance, even if ultimately the story has as much schmaltz than real emotional depth. There is a strong sense of community, with all the villagers contributing to the scenario and making of the film, though stereotype and cliché sometimes dull the drama. Perhaps this is a bit unfair because Wright’s play should not be taken too literally, being more akin to magical realism or a Jewish fairy tale – complete with a Hollywood-style ending.
Nicholas Hytner’s folksy production conveys much warmth and vibrancy, while Bob Crowley’s Chagallesque set features a homely wooden dwelling with glimpses of village roofs with smoking chimneys jutting into the sky. Video/projection designer Jon Driscoll does a superb job in re-creating the flickering black-and-white images of silent film shown both on the inside wall and on a large curving screen behind, and Grant Olding’s violin-based score includes Klezmer music to add to the Jewish atmosphere.
Although it is not his story, Antony Sher’s Jacob dominates the stage when present, a cross between Borat naivety and Fiddler on the Roof ebullience, with a hint of swaggering menace behind the bonhomie. It’s a very physical performance for this larger than life character, a self-made businessman as the prototype for a studio mogul, illiterate but commercially astute. In contrast, Damien Molony’s frustrated Motl is self-consciously arty, more interested in following his imaginative impulses than practical considerations, though as his older self Paul Jesson shows a mellower self-assurance. Lauren O’Neil’s Anna touchingly puts her own feelings for Motl second to his ambitions. Sue Kelvin and Karl Theobald offer good comic support as Motl’s shrewd aunt and Jacob’s budget-conscious bookkeeper, respectively.
Travelling Light may overdo the sentimentality and nostalgia a tad, but it’s a big-hearted, entertaining show with the straightforward appeal of early Hollywood movies.
Travelling Light will be playing at the National Theatre from January 12th- March 6th 2012, after which it will be embarking on a tour. The National Theatre Live broadcast will take place on 9th February.
Read Neil Dowden’s interview with Nicholas Wright here.