Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Pros: Interesting and light-hearted story, some good performances and a superb set design.
Cons: A little silly in places, and quite hard to concentrate at first because of the accents.
Our Verdict: Not the National’s best, but still very good and worth a trip!
As always, it remains our intention to see everything that the National
has to offer. So as part of a mop up of shows that we haven’t seen, we took ourselves off to see Travelling Light
, several months behind all the real critics. I’d heard mixed things – there are a few good reviews out there, but an equal number of people saying that it is hard to take it seriously and that it’s a bit bland. Having now seen it I understand why it has split opinion, but that doesn’t change the fact that I thought it was a lovely and actually a rather interesting piece of theatre.
Nicholas Wright’s new piece is about the imaginary birth of movie-making. Set in remote Eastern Europe, it tracks the story of Motl Mendl, a young lad who is fascinated with the moving images created by his father’s cinematograph (an amazingly accurate prop, complete with flickering limelight projector). Jacob, a local merchant, is also in awe of the moving images, and he provides the money for Mendl to make what are in essence the earliest forms of movies. There is also a love interest in the form of the beautiful Anna, the girl that is sent to help him make the films. During the course of the story, we see the earliest examples of editing and special effects, and we also see the all-too-familiar clash between the artist and the budget. Forty years later, Mendl is a famous Hollywood film director and he looks back over his life, pondering what he gave up when he left Eastern Europe.
So let’s get the negatives out the way first. The accents do occasionally make it hard to take it seriously, especially Jacob’s (portrayed by Anthony Sher). When I first heard it, all I could think of was Sergei from the Compare the Market adverts. I’m not sure if this is how Nicholas Hytner intended it to be; perhaps it is a deliberate attempt to match the performances to the light-hearted nature of the story for instance? I don’t accept criticisms of the play itself; it is light-hearted and a bit silly, but it’s a nice story and despite being fictional it does give an interesting insight into the world of early movie-making. It does have a few clichés and Jewish stereotypes in there, and these are perhaps what lends itself to criticism. Overall though, I have few complaints.
The story is held together well by some good performances. Damien Molony, playing the young Mendl, is excellent as the young and rather naïve director, and his relationship with Anthony Sher’s Jacob is brilliantly brought to life by the two performers. We see a real journey in this partnership, as Mendl goes from feeling gratitude towards Jacob to resentment as he uses his money to push Mendl around. Lauren O’Neil is also very good as Anna, the girl who is loved by both Jacon and Mendl, and this adds an extra dimension to this on-stage love triangle.
On this occasion however, my biggest praise for the evening goes to designer Bob Crowley, who really has created a wonderfully appropriate set. Downstage is the interior of the Eastern European house, and upstage is a fantastic ‘movie village’, a small scale model village showing rooftops and the lit outline of a village. It’s a really fantastic set, and one of those designs where you recognise half way through the show how clever it is.
Travelling Light is an interesting and light-hearted take on the birth of movie making. It isn’t factual, and it is a bit silly in places, but it’s a good evening of entertainment, and it engaged me throughout. As I mentioned, it certainly isn’t the best thing I’ve seen in London, but it’s a good show and it is certainly worth going to see it. As always with the National, even their less good shows are still pretty darn good!
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