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A CurtainUp London London Review
Travelling Light

I’ll make the movies and you’ll act in them. — Motl Mendl
Travelling Light
Damien Molony as Motl and Lauren O’Neil as Anna
(Photo: Johan Persson)
Nicholas Wright’s new play, Travelling Light is produced at the National Theatre where many of us saw his magnificent Vincent in Brixton about the artist Van Gogh. This time his historical inspiration is the shtetls of Russia and the many Jewish filmmakers who made Hollywood what it is today.

We start with Paul Jesson as Maurice Montgomery, his name anglicised from Motl Mendl (Damien Molony), his younger self who we see inheriting his uncle’s photographic equipment in an Eastern European shtetl, a small town community of Jewish families in 1900. Montgomery is a Hollywood mogul and Travelling Light is his story of how he came to America and of his career in filmmaking.

Motl Mendl’s first foray into film making is when he is commissioned to take a portrait of timber merchant Jacon Bindel’s family. Jacob (Antony Sher) bursts onto the stage looking like one of the cast from The Fiddler on the Roof with his wife Isa (Abigail McKern) and their son Aron (Jonathan Woolf) who has been made to enlist in the Tsar’s army and of whom they would like a photographic record before his likely death in battle or from starvation. Mendl has discovered that besides the still photographic equipment, his uncle has left a Lumière Cinématographe for producing moving images and so Mendl records the movingly fond and haphazard farewells to the unfortunate Aron.

Jacob and his wife help Mendl come up with human interest melodrama instead of the documentary. Jacob discovers that he is a director manqué and undertakes to finance Mendl’s first motion picture, a record of the small town they live in. With his colourful history and interesting accent, Jacob illustrates the tendency of producers to interfere with artistic direction and frustrates Mendl at every turn of the reel.

Anna Mazowiecka (Lauren O’Neil), who is not Jewish, helps Mendl with the editing of the film to make a story work and becomes his first leading lady both on set and off. We see the filming of a more ambitious movie with Anna, having left her family is disgrace, as an opera singer returning to the bed of her dying father. Mendl sets off for America secretly, abandoning everyone but taking his film reels with him.

History will catch up with Maurice Montgomery in 1936 but I will not spoil that story now. Paul Jesson is admirably convincing as the confident Hollywood mogul and Damien Molony has all the ambition and drive of his younger, less mature self, including his frustration in attempting to control those who want to sentimentalise his artistic vision. Wright ties up the ends neatly and we see how all of Montgomery’s later feature films use the ideas described to him in the shtetl. Antony Sher is full of character and thoroughly enjoys his role as the hands on financier of the filming.

There is sterling work from Jon Driscoll in the black and white projections of what has been filmed from the early hand held camera work to the slightly more sophisticated end product of Mendl’s vision. There is a magical moment at the beginning of the play when Montgomery talks about the movie filling the stage and the projection does just that. Bob Crowley’s set has the realistic, if overly large, inside of a dwelling house and studio with the roof tops behind. Costumes feature the knotted fringes of prayer shawls falling from the men’s jackets.

Travelling Light is a light family comedy which shows more of the stereotypical camaraderie of the daily life of the shtetl than the privations and political oppression of life under the Tsar, but it also illustrates a source for the tales of imagination and romance which filled the early Hollywood movies.

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Travelling Light
Written by Nicholas Wright
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Antony Sher, Damien Molony, Abigail McKern, Alexis Zegerman, Lauren O’Neil
With: Sue Kelvin, Damien Molony, Jonathan Woolf, Karl Theobald, Colin Haigh, Darren Swift, Mark Extance, Neil McCann/Alexander Semple, Tom Peters, Jill Stanford, Geoffrey Towers, Kate Webster
Set Designed by Bob Crowley
Costumes: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Bruno Poet
Video/Projection Designer: Jon Driscoll
Sound: Rich Walsh
Music: Grant Olding
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 6th March 2012 and on tour to 7th April 2012
On 9th February 2012 Travelling Light will be broadcast to cinemas across the UK and around the world as part of National Theatre Live.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th January 2012 performance at The Lyttelton, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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