A gentle tale of the birth of cinema, framed by Maurice Montgomery (Paul Jesson) a successful Hollywood director who wanders the stage in the past and the present, narrating his own history. Maurice was formerly known as Motl Mendl who, as a young man, returned to his East European village after the death of his father (quite a while after the death of his father) to become fascinated by the art of moving pictures. Curiously, although he has thrown off his birth name he’s returned to the accent we never knew he had. A minor niggle but one that I couldn’t shake off as young Motl was determinedly Home Counties in intonation.
Supported by a long suffering Aunt, funded by a rich local merchant and assisted by a comely servant sprung on him by said rich merchant (for a vareiy of dubious reasons), Motl is set to begin filming. The use of projection both within the confines of the set as well as on a larger scale is striking – and to be honest the Lyttleton does have a slight air of a cinema about it! Maybe it’s the proportions of the space…
Although the story revolves around Motl I’m not sure he’s a hero, he doesn’t come over as particularly likeable. Driven yes, idealistic yes but he’s a user. Forced to return the shetl, admitting he’s not the grand big city success he let people assume he was, he starts to develop his skills. But it’s Anna who realises the potential of editing and creating narrative instead of a simple record and despite his frustration with those who surround him he takes their ideas and claims them as his own. His final departure in the dead of night, taking the camera and the film – and the money – leaving a pregnant Anna behind is self centred and cowardly.
He treats Anna badly – she’s useful and convenient as well as absurdly photogenic. Why couldn’t he admit to their relationship? Because he didn’t want to as he didn’t believe in it himself or because he was more bound by the conventions of his upbringing than he could admit.
Lauren O’Neil played Anna beautifully, a mixture of appropriate deference and inappropriate defiance, with just a touch of the diva trying to break through. She made Anna’s choices seem obvious, she needed to go with her head not her heart, her upbringing determined that.
The films of her made up in the style of the day are lovely and let us see what Motl saw – not a real flesh and blood woman but a perfect, beautiful image.
Damien Molony shows promise and acquits himself well as Motl, more so as Nate with a dramatic change of body language and a pretty creditable Brooklyn accent. He’s one to watch although its early days but I think a few more years will bring him a little of the stage presence that comes so effortlessly to Anthony Sher.
Sher channels Tevye – if he’d been a rich man – and I fail to see how else he could have done it! It doesn’t feel as if the role was a great challenge to him but whatever he does he is always in the centre, he draws the eye in the way that Jacob would adore. And probably expect.
There are a selection of knowing laughs about the innocence of the emerging film industry and how in America no one will ever dare to interfere with the art. Of course.
Technically Travelling Light is just as good as you would expect from the National Theatre, competent, well staged, well done. Sounds like damning with faint praise – I enjoyed it but my preference is for theatre that challenges and confronts, makes you uncomfortable and leaves you thinking and this one doesn’t do that. I won’t deny it was a perfectly pleasant way to spend an afternoon but somehow it feels a touch slight. And conversely about 15 minutes too long.
I do love the name of the play though – Travelling Light – fitting on all levels.