Sunday 19 February 2012

Travelling Light - Review

National Theatre, London

February 19 2012

Written by: Nicholas Wright
Directed by Nick Hytner
Music by Grant Olding

In some ways, Travelling Light represents what the National Theatre really can do very well. A stunning set design by Bob Crowley that cleverly evokes an Eastern European shtetl at the beginning of the 20th century, and a use of technology and staging to tell what could be a very imaginative story.
The play charts the development of the exploitation of the motion picture camera developed by the Lumiere brothers into a vehicle for telling fictional stories that can ultimately be projected to paying audiences. In essence, the birth of what Hollywood was to become.
Nicholas Wright opens his tale in 1936 with Maurice Montgomery ( Paul Jesson ) , a Hollywood producer, looking back to his starting out in motion pictures as a young man in the shtetl, inheriting his father's camera.  The young filmmaker is played by Damian Molony,  whose name before emigrating to the USA had been Motel Mendl
Mendl recognises the potential to use the camera to tell stories through film, and a local wealthy timber merchant Jacob Bindel, (Antony Sher) sees the commercial potential in Mendl making films that will tell exciting and fantastic stories that people will want to pay money to see.
The story’s strength lies in its premise that some of the key aspects of film-making were born even in the infancy of the art. The small world of the shtetl sees the movie-makers encounter budgetary constraints, temperamental artists, a meddling (or even visionary) producer, sexual duplicity and even the casting couch. To that extent the story is potentially clever, and at times probably close to being historically accurate in some of the detail it portrays. The National’s use of projection technology to chart the development of Mend’ls black and white silent movies is pleasing – the musical accompaniment written by the talented Grant Olding provides an authentic shtetl sound. It is clear that with his skiffle contribution to One Man , Two Guvnors, and with his work in this production, that there is a very positive creative relationship between Hytner and Olding.
The delivery of the story is however flawed inasmuch as there is an inconsistent use of accent and dialect. In the shtetl, most of the (generally well acted) characters do not have an Eastern European inflection to their voice  with the exception of Bindel, whose distinctive and somewhat contrived accent has already rather mischievously been described as being based around Borat. In a similar observation, the young  Mendl speaks with with no accent whatsoever in the shtetl, yet adopts a broad American-Yiddish brogue as the old man Montgomery by the time he makes it to Hollywood. This dialectic evolution is left unexplained.

The character of Bindel is also just a little too "one-dimensional". The timber merchant describes his journey from poverty to wealth, but we only encounter him as an established person of substance, and see little of his development.  To have Sher play a character who is often little more than a stereotypical cross between Tevye and Zorba ,but without the emotional arc of either of those two cultural legends, seems to me a rare squandering of one of the great acting talents of his generation. The action of the play hops between Hollywood and the flashback shtetl, and the story moves towards a denouement that whilst aiming to be moving and profound is perhaps a little too contrived.
Overall, one is reminded of Tateh , the penniless Jewish immigrant to the USA in Ahrens and Flaherty's musical Ragtime who goes on to make his fortune in the movie industry. Tateh's story is a modest chapter in a much larger canvas, but nonetheless a journey told perhaps a little more succintly than has been portrayed here.

The recent success of the movie The Artist has seen silent film thrust back into contemporary popularity. With that in mind and given the rather distracting vocal inconsistencies in this production, a possible thought to consider is that if this play had perhaps have been devised as a  mimed performance, without dialogue, but with simply more of Olding's music and appropriately projected dialog cards it could possibly have been a more impressive tribute to the era that it sets out to portray.

In repertory and also on tour until June 2

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