Digital projectors, CGI, 3D, streaming movies. Recent technological innovations have transformed the way films are made and enjoyed. But just as gadgets promise ever more thrills, there seems to be more and more interest in the early years of film. Travelling Light joins the recent trend in winding back the clock to the first great era of cinematic invention.
Unlike Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Oscar-favourite The Artist or even Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film, Travelling Light takes place on the stage. This soft-hearted play is currently showing at the Lyttelton Theatre on the South Bank. It is directed by National Theatre boss Nicholas Hytner and time will tell if it quite good enough to follow the success of his last play, One Man, Two Guvnors, and move to a sell out run in the West End.
The American film industry was founded and run by Eastern European Jews, so they say. You can learn more from Neal Gabler’s thick history of Jewish Hollywood – ‘An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood’. Travelling Light tries to imagine what one of these industrious souls got up to before he made it to Tinsel Town. In the best Hollywood tradition, it is a story of love, loss and plenty of laughs.
It is in the first brave years of the Twentieth Century and young Motl Mendl, played by an energetic (he paces around an enormous amount) Damien Molony, returns to the shtetl where he grew up. Shtetls were villages in Eastern Europe, where tight-nit Jewish communities lived lives of honest piety. Motl has been in the big city working as a journalist and returns home to his aunt’s house after the news of his father’s death finally reaches him.
The aunt, Tsippa played by Sue Kelvin, with her hips fully padded out by the costume department is a solid and formidable force. However, it is his father’s legacy and the rumbustious local timber merchant, Jacob Bindel played with gusto by Anthony Sher, who are the real powers to be reckoned with. Shortly before expiring, Motl’s dad bought one of the Lumière brothers’ new camera/projectors – the cinématographe – and his son duly becomes fascinated.
The loud-voiced king-pin Bindel offers to finance the young film maker if he will capture moving images of the local villagers. He even provides Motl with an assistant, the beautiful but vulnerable Gentile Anna played by Lauren O’Neil. Soon enough there is romance in the air, and Motl and Anna have to figure out how to tell a story using their huge, unwieldy bit of kit. The play gives us a fascinating lesson in how the cinématographe worked and watching how the couple figure out the elementary techniques of film narrative is engaging, if a little too contrived to be entirely convincing.
The audience is given an inkling of Motl’s successful future – his older, Hollywood-mogul self often turns up on stage to reflect on events – but his youthful struggles are a little too easily resolved. Much of the fun comes from the joke cracking timber-merchant Jacob and the rest of the villagers who, if not terribly rounded characters, are likeable and warm.
The biggest problem with the play it is that the resolution is a little too syrupy. Nicholas Wright, the playwright, attempts to defuse this by having the older Motl wonder if perhaps his story is a little heavy on the schmaltz. There are plenty of jokes and Motl says enough farewells on his journey to temper the sweetness, and besides schmaltz never did Hollywood any harm.
Nicholas Hytner has also directed films, including The Madness of King George, The Object of My Affection and The History Boys. Travelling light plays until 2nd June, with a national tour during March and early April, tickets start at £5.