Travelling Light – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
by Nigel Armitage, March 2012
The settings, in a new play by Nicholas Wright and directed by Nicholas Hytner, are a shtetl (‘small town’ in Yiddish) in Eastern Europe, around the dawn of the 20th century; and a Hollywood movie studio in 1936. Maurice Montgomery, big-shot movie director in Hollywood’s Golden Age, takes us on a journey into his past and the beginning of his love affair with the nascent medium of the travelling light and flickering image. In a wonderfully evocative imagining, the National Theatre’s production re-creates a form of Jewish community life that persecution and modernity would definitively extinguish. But this is a story of possibilities and beginnings rather than endings, of excitement at a new way of seeing and representing the world, before changing it forever.
Maurice Montgomery (a performance of aplomb and subtlety by Paul Jesson) was once Motl Mendl (a vibrant Damien Molony), inheritor, from his deceased father in an East European backwater, of a cinématographe Lumière machine. He has ambitious plans for himself and his movie-making, and it is to the city, and ultimately America, rather than the shtetl, that he wishes to turn his camera.
But the astute and self-made local timber merchant Jacob Bindel (a full value and bearded Anthony Sher, firmly in Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof mode) learns that Mendl lacks the necessary kopecks and so becomes one of the first movie financier-producers. His proviso is that Mendl must make the shtetl and its inhabitants the subject of his movies. It is an agreement that Mendl will soon have cause to regret thanks to Bindel’s maddeningly over-bearing but funny, interfering antics. And yet it is Bindel who appears to grasp the potential significance of the new art form, when he tells Mendl: “I will die and you will die. But our movies live for always.”
The production combines live action with beautifully shot and often comical silent scenes on screen. When Mendl speaks rapturously of how, on film, the light seems to shine beneath the skin of his assistant, muse and lover Anna (Lauran O’Neil), we know exactly what he means. The fine score by Grant Holding, melodious, sombre violins and cellos, provides additional emotional depth and intensity.
We see in this sweet, funny and moving play how an individual’s passionate commitment to an art form can lead back, ultimately, to questions of belonging and identity. We share Maurice/Motl’s journey between time and place and the experience is illuminating for all of us.