Monday, 26 March 2012

Travelling Light review

Following on from its run at the National Theatre earlier this year, Nicholas Hytner’s production of Travelling Light is touring up the country, and is currently playing at the Leeds Grand. Travelling Light tells the story of Motl Mendl, a young man living in a remote village in Eastern Europe who inherits his late father’s cinematograph. And so begins his fascination with film, which will eventually lead him to Hollywood and to renown as an American film director. The play is told in two time frames: that of Mendl in his village, painstakingly trying to realize his creative ambition surrounded by a group of colourful townsfolk, and that of Maurice Montgomery (Mendl’s assumed American name in later life), looking back on his life and rise to fame.

©National Theatre; Image Credit: Johann Persson
The play begins with a slow reel of film, scratchy and lightspotted, projected against the wooden wall of a house in the village. A figure in darkness turns the lever of the cinematograph, which is placed prominently centre stage throughout the play, while Maurice Montgomery (Paul Jesson) explains that it was with this poor-quality reel of waves crashing silently against a beach that his love of film began. A play so steeped in the history of film must incorporate the medium, and Hytner’s production does this well, with a huge screen upstage, drawing the eye and dominating the set of humble houses in the foreground. The set in the first half shows the shetl (small Eastern European village) where Mendl lived, a cluster of wooden houses or huts that appear Borrower-like, conveying the modest living conditions of the poor townsfolk. This sense of humble beginnings is exacerbated later in the play when almost the entire cast are onstage, squeezed into the kitchen of Mendl’s aunt’s house. The camaraderie amongst the townspeople is something from which Mendl will always be separate: his ambition, his modernity, and his passion for his art all mark him out as different and unused to the narrow-mindedness of the Jewish community in which he was brought up, and this theme of family dysfunction is poignantly manifested most clearly in a dream-sequence scene at the end of the play when Maurice Montgomery comes back to the village and partakes in a small, traditional Jewish celebration with his aunt.

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.

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