Nicholas Wright’s beguiling alternative account of the birth of the moving picture industry opens on stage just as the ravishing silent film The Artist garners a sheaf of award nominations.
Cleverly incorporating silent film, Wright’s play is both a hymn to the early movie pioneers and an affectionate evocation of life in a Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe around 1900, conjured notably by a non-Jewish writer in fruitful partnership with Jewish director Nicholas Hytner.
Aspiring young journalist Motl Mendl returns to the shtetl on his father’s death, to find his legacy - the first flickerings of moving images on his cinematograph. At the insistence of wealthy local timber merchant Jacob, Mendl stays, to work first on making moving pictures of shtetl life.
As successful movie mogul Maurice Montgomery (sympathetic Paul Jesson), the middle-aged Mendl tells his story in flashback from Hollywood, so his future is a given.
The fun of Wright’s story is how Mendl and his helpmeet and lover Anna stumble on how to make movies, and the techniques of cutting and montage that bend time itself. Together with the other villagers, led by the ebullient Jacob, they painstakingly work out by trial and error the practicalities of showing and marketing films – and so the cinema is born!
In this climactic comic scene the shtetl movers and shakers, gathered for a preview of Mendl’s prototype documentary, collectively realise the wonderfully corny and melodramatic story of a pregnant servant girl forced to abandon her baby before finding fame as an opera star in what will become Mendl’s first feature film.
In the starring role, intelligent, practical Anna proves she’s a pretty face as well and more than ready for her close up. The play’s second half has more fun with the problems and practicalities of shooting on the ‘set’ of the village. The consequences of Motl and Jacob’s shared attraction to Anna mean life imitates art. And there’s reincorporation in 1930s Hollywood as Maurice discovers Nate Dershowitz, a young unknown he intends to mould into matinee idol Nick Driver.
Hytner’s creative team rise superbly to the challenge of showing monochrome film against the shtetl backdrop. Bob Crowley’s sepia tumble of roofs and warm wood interiors are complemented by the autumnal tones of Vicki Mortimer’s costumes and Bruno Poet’s lighting. The cast have huge fun in Jon Driscoll’s gorgeously pastiche film footage and there’s a whole new cast of actors in the rushes of the nascent feature. The falls and rhythms of Grant Olding’s score, (he also wrote the plangent cello music for the recent production of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass) evoke Jewish Eastern Europe and the sentimentality of silent film.
Antony Sher, fresh from playing a self-hating Jew in Broken Glass, clearly revels in his terrific comic creation of the larger-than-life Jacob – a man very much at home in his skin and his position as community elder. Irish actor Damien Moloney’s Mendl captures his sometimes selfish single-mindedness and comic exasperation at having to explain the language of film to a ‘focus group’ of villagers.
In Lauren O'Neil’s Anna, Mendl – and Hytner – have indeed found a luminous star, with a bright intelligence on stage and real movie-icon charisma on screen. And Sue Kelvin as Mendl’s aunt, leading a shtetl-full of larger-than-life characters, is a deliciously big and benign presence, earning appreciative laughter and staying just the right side of caricature.