The vogue for movie nostalgia has been widely documented in the media, fuelled largely by the roaring success of The Artist. With the opening of Nicolas Wright’s latest play, Travelling Light, the trend has found its way from the big screen onto the small stage. The play, a National Theatre production touring the UK over the next week, draws on a wealth of histories from around the turn of the 20th century to create an original mythology of the birth of cinema.
The story follows Motl Mendel as both narrator and protagonist in his own tale, as he reminisces about the desires and confines which kept him in a small Polish village making his very first motion picture. His passion for filming is rivalled by passion for his assistant, Anna, though his continual struggle against the stifling community bonds of his Shtetl threaten to overcome his dreams.
The play is animated and punctuated by charming imaginings of Mendel’s films which both add depth to the story and artfully mask scene changes on stage.
Impeccably acted and executed, the play narrows the distance between our modern concerns and those of a village over 100 years ago. Mendel, played at 22 by Damien Molony, embodies a head-strong idealism and is both delightful and disturbing to behold. His wilfulness is equalled by Anthony Sher’s patriarch Jacob Bindel, whose immaculate comic timing solidifies rather than detracts from the tenderness of the writing. Paul Jesson’s portrayal of elderly Mendel, meanwhile, adds an extra layer of poignancy as he appears alongside his naïve younger self.
As an entity, the production is tangibly split into two halves and not simply by necessity of the interval. The drama breaks on the cusp of Mendel’s first full-length, plot-driven feature; but while the first half culminates in a sense of achievement and anticipation, the second commences amid frustration and fretfulness. This largely works very well, providing a fresh perspective and surprising direction for the drama. The structure lends itself to comparison, however, and I couldn’t help but enjoy the first half a little more than the second. The new course also meant that reaching a unifying conclusion was troublesome: there are aspects of Anna’s storyline that felt unbelievable, while the denouement was a little contrived.
The film clips were wonderfully created with shots accurately mimicking camera angles popular at the inception of cinema. At times I missed the use of real footage from the period which could have aligned fiction with fact and paid true homage to the medium in question. On the whole, though, the scenes, like the live action, were excellently created; their impact heightened by the strength of the actors they exposed. Most notably, Lauren O’Neil’s exquisite close-ups as Anna demonstrated her undeniable flair for both stage and screen acting.
Travelling Light is a charming snapshot of motion pictures in their earliest form. Its clever execution of a mix of media illuminates and enchants our enduring fascination with the moving image. However, the overriding success of the play for me lies in the people rather than the form; it is the human emotional journey which provides the foundation from which we can explore our own invention. Though the plot occasionally stretched the bounds of plausibility, the play as a whole was touching and fulfilling.
Words by Claudia Rowe
Travelling Light is at the Leeds Grand Theatre 20th March – 24th March 2012, buy tickets here