The National Theatre’s production of Travelling Light, visiting Leeds on a four-theatre tour, boasts a distinguished cast and superb production values, but can’t disguise the fact that Nicholas Wright’s play is a pretty slight affair and by no means consistently involving. The result is a pleasant evening in the theatre, rather drawn out at times, but generally diverting.
Maurice Montgomery, successful Hollywood director, born Motl Mendl, looks back from the vantage point of 1936 to his introduction to the moving image via his late father’s cinematograph in an Eastern European shtetl in the early years of the century. Local timber merchant Jacob Bindel wishes to have a filmed memento of his son, newly recruited into the Czar’s army, and from this he develops into a generous, if interfering, patron of the young film maker. He provides Motl with an assistant, Anna, who discovers with remarkable ease the miracle of editing and proves her star quality once Motl moves from filming the villagers about their business on to a plotted drama.
Wright too readily accepts clichés in his portrayal of life in the shtetl. In the programme Eva Hoffman warns against seeing the shtetl in “nostalgically stark or sentimental colours”, its inhabitants either quaint and lovable or victims of pogroms. Sadly the play proves her point. It’s a world of comic stereotypes (some wonderful beards on show) and a late reference to a pogrom is not enough to give depth.
Nicholas Hytner’s direction is, of course, polished and assured, but doesn’t really animate the play – and the medley of accents is a mystery. I presume the justification for Motl Mendl speaking standard English and his older self having an East European Jewish accent is that in the shtetl scenes he would really have been speaking Yiddish, but it certainly sounds odd. Anthony Sher seizes the bravura part of Jacob Bindel with relish and is immensely entertaining while destroying any tenuous grip the play has on reality. Damien Molony neatly doubles Motl and the young film actor Montgomery discovers in 1936. Lauren O’Neil is suitably eager and intelligent (and unexpectedly well-spoken) as Anna, but makes her biggest impact on the silver screen. Paul Jesson is reassuringly solid as Montgomery and makes the most of a clever, if rather artificial, ending.
Our enjoyment of an amiable entertainment is much enhanced by Bob Crowley’s beautifully detailed set, Grant Olding’s atmospheric music and, above all, the wonderfully authentic-looking films (video designer Jon Driscoll) which are the main unifying element in the play.
Travelling Light continues at The Grand Theatre, Leeds until 24 March.