The young Mendl is played by Damien Molony, a recently trained young actor who carries the central character with sensitivity and pathos. His growing love for his assistant, Anna Mazowiecka (Lauren O’Neil), is beautifully realized in a visually captivating scene where the two characters are working together on a film for the village. O’Neil presents Anna as a resourceful and intelligent worker, often proposing the best ideas (such as cutting the film to link two scenes filmed separately – an obvious idea to us now, but a eureka moment onstage) whilst struggling to express her feelings for the talented Mendl. They eventually act on their mutual affection, after a long build-up in which the sexual tension is unbearable, and the scene ends with a striking image: as the cinematograph plays in the background, their kiss is silhouetted against the grainy black-and-white film, until, unnoticed by them, the reel starts to pop and burn inside the cinematograph. Much of the play is presented in real-time, and takes place in exactly the same setting, which although is a strangely honest way of relating the story, has the effect of making it drag. The script here is at fault: Hytner’s direction makes adequate use of any possible rise in tension or tempo, but the pace unfortunately remains the same throughout, and for a long play at two and a half hours, this is no small criticism.
Antony Sher as the endearing and illiterate Jacob Bindel alleviates the lack of pace with his inimitable stage presence. Jacob is the producer for the young Mendl, and bankrolls his ventures. The two clash, and Mendl memorably cries (much to the knowing laughter of the audience) that he can’t wait to work in Hollywood, without Jacob interfering and without anyone nagging him about budget, because “There’s no one like that there!” Karl Theobald plays Itzak, the accountant for Mendl’s films, and his portrayal of the abacus-wielding, methodical, kindly man is spot-on: his awkwardness acts as a foil to Molony’s energy and direction on stage, and he offers well-timed humour at crucial moments. Molony, Theobald and Sher are the major presences in this cast, and their talent and animation on stage make up for the weaknesses in the script.