Review – Travelling Light, National Theatre

Wednesday 18 January 2012

“Who knew the invention of cinematic grammar could be this dull?” pondered Andrew at the interval of Travelling Light. Indeed, one could almost leave things there and move on. But of course that wouldn’t be very Whingerish would it?

With a big canvas and a big subject the usually very reliable Nicholas Wright sensibly focuses on one aspect of the big screen by telling the tale through the eyes of one of the many Eastern European Jewish émigrés who played such a huge part in the development of motion pictures.

Successful director Maurice Montgomery (Paul Jesson) looks back from thirties Hollywood on his younger days in a shtetl (no, nor us, “small town” in Yiddish apparently) somewhere in Eastern Europe “around the dawn of the 20th century” where as an artistic photographer formerly known as Motl Mendl (Damien Molony) he “invents” aspects of cinema as we know it today. His initial efforts are so dreary he makes Terence Davies look like Roland Emmerich.

Filming in his shtetl with financial backing from local timber-merchant Jacob (Antony Sher) he stumbles upon dramatic narrative almost by chance with a lot of help in the editing suite from Anna (Lauren O’ Neil) who is displaying all the signs of turning into Thelma Schoonmaker.

Soon the whole town is acting, filming or adding their thoughts to the film being shot in the village. And everyone’s a critic!

One of the problems is the cloud of ironic hindsight which hangs over the proceedings as heavily as in The Lion in Winter. Gasp at the discovery of the cinema auditorium, marvel at the early ticket booking system (though no signs of iniquitous booking fees) and laugh at the first collaborative screenplay, rewrites and test screening for audience feedback. We can be thankful that he doesn’t invent popcorn, though copious amounts of plum brandy are knocked back, a much quieter option for the multiplexes. It’s a clever idea and really ought to be quite hilarious and whilst undemandingly amiable enough it’s not really as interesting as we may have made it sound.

There’s a twist of coincidence in Act 2 which is slightly irritating. Nicholas Hytner directs most of the play on a landing strip space at the front of the wide Lyttelton stage (design Bob Crowley) while we see Motl’s cinematic efforts projected above the back of the stage. There’s a collection of characters offering various levels of gentle amusement while Sher gives it large enough to fill the whole cavernous auditorium with an accent that suggests he’s auditioning for voice-over work on the next Meerkat advert.

Given the potential of the subject matter and Wright’s excellent track record (The Reporter, Vincent in Brixton, The Last of the Duchess, Mrs Klein etc) Travelling Light (good title) was a big disappointment. Rather 2D in fact, but perhaps we must be grateful that we do not have to watch it wearing silly specs. Although Andrew did of course.

Contains mild sexual references, moderate drinking (by our standards), infrequent action and scenes of occasional comedy and potato peeling.



18 Responses to “Review – Travelling Light, National Theatre”

  1. Brain Tree Says:

    I felt Sher sounded like Pop from The League of Gentlemen, really disappointing performance and his only saving grace is a wonderful look he gives in the second half. A look that proves he is very good actor when giving something mildly interesting to work with. This wasn’t it.

  2. WestEndFringer Says:

    It was all very, er, nice. Pointless, but nice. The coincidence thingy in Act 2 is a roll-your-eyes/’oh no, don’t do this’ moment. Sher’s performance is Simon Callowesque.

  3. Sandown Says:

    Pointless, indeed. What conceivable relevance does this kind of production have, for most people in this country?

    It must be time for the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain to rename itself as “North London on the Thames” . That would give a better indication of the outlook of its management, and of the type of material which it puts on.

    Needless to say, at the taxpayers’ expense.

    • IMO Says:

      If the taxpayer should only fund what is relevant to majority of the population how tedious our theatre would quickly become. Multi-ethnic characters, variety of family structures, finding it hard to pay the bills by the end of the month etc. Dictators use culture to reflect their ideals and so-called subversives are branded as personae non grata. Rue the day if the UK tax-funded theatre has to choose between following specific rules or lose its grants.


      • @ IMO good for you.
        London is blessed all of the different races to make it #1 capital.
        Shame about the stat this week that we now have 1/4 million + immigrants from outside of the EU on benefit.

  4. IMO Says:

    Villagers coming together to make a film, sometimes agreeing, often disagreeing – the potential for comedy not fully explored by the playwright. It seems that Wright could never decide whether he was creating a comedy or a docu-drama on the precursor to Hollywood.

  5. Folarin Says:

    I enjoyed it (Simple)

  6. Ian M Says:

    We’ve just got in from seeing Travelling Light at the NT. I’m embarrased to say that I don’t understand how this came to be put on. I guess must be missing some sub-plot, possibly known only to the movie industry or the jewish community. Apart from the set which was typically imaginative as we have grown to expect from NT, the rest of the play was naive, confusing in parts, and corny in parts, and didn’t even have the saving grace of being a true story. Very odd altogether. A bit of a waste of time and money.

  7. At My Desk Says:

    The most enjoyable part of Travelling Light? The meal beforehand. What a totally pointless, flat, cliche-ridden production. Felt like Anthony Sher must have been itching to play Teve (Fidder on the Roof) all his life, because he sure did last night – although thankfully he didn’t sing. None of the characters were engaging, and the plot – such as it was, totally failed to draw us in. Hubby said afterwards that someone must be backhanding someone bigtime at the National to have to have got that rubbish put on. Trust me, if the sub-plot was known only to members of the Jewish community, as mentioned in Ian M’s review above, they sure didn’t let us in on it, and as members of said community, frankly – we were embarrassed. Really can’t believe we were watching it at one of our most beloved national theatrical institutions. Trying not to think of what we paid for the tickets – £90.70 for two – Oy! The one and only time I felt even vaguely amused was when the man sitting next to me tried unsuccessfully to stiffle a fart. My advice – If you have tickets, try ebaying them immediately. Good luck!

  8. Jonathon Briggs Says:

    Here in the frozen north of England, the chance to see some of the NT’s performances, via satelite in our local cinema at very modest prices, has been a delight. Yet, two or three, have been truly awful, A Disappearing Number to name one. Two more I left halfway through.

    I cannot understand why the powers that be think a performance which has such limited appeal, should be broadcast world wide. Is the choice material for these shows SO limited?

    Here I can judge the quality of what is coming on by the attendance in the cinema on my arrival. A good show will be 50% full; a dull one 5%.

    Anyhow gripe over, the good shows are magnificent, and there have been far more of those.

  9. Philip Davies Says:

    I’m not an ‘issue’ driven sort of chap at all but I find I am really shocked at the mealy-mouthed anti-Semitism in too many of these comments – they’re not even honestly bonkers, just snide and superior as only the narrow-minded can be. They need another Hitler to give their leaden souls the deadly wings of ingenious Satan. I saw the play, and, while it is probably not going to figure in any canon of essential drama in years to come, it was beautifully produced and performed, was witty, and – above all – it conveyed a welcome sense of folk whose community was rich in characters whose very flaws only made them more human and lovable; There was a reminiscence of the fabled ‘Lubitsch touch’ in the piquantly seamless shifts from comedy to sadness and back again. In other words, we got a powerful sense of relationship and family – far, far removed from today’s rootless urban congeries of mutually hostile feral dysfunctionals.Of course it was only in Hollywood that such exiles from the wolfish contempt of all around them could maintain their self-confessedly schmaltzy memories of their long-lost families: This schmaltz is the authentic pain of a nostalgia whose intensity lies in the certainty of there being no home to go back to any more; the only remedy for such a condition is to draw your memories more closely around you to keep out the cold of an alien world of cruel loneliness and exile. And, as the play makes clear, this simple warm-heartedness has appealed to millions for whom there was never enough love and kindness in the world, or for whom such generosity was only a distant memory; and America was full of such survivors. Their nostalgia is also partly formed out of guilt, the guilty sense of the survivor that their good luck is – however willy-nilly – dependant on the misfortunes of others (as Maurice observes); So naturally they seek to perpetuate the memory of the lost ones, those taken by disease or pogrom or just the cruel neglect of intervening years of silent absence with not even an occasional letter, the cruel neglect of forgetfulness. The memory must grow larger than life to compensate for the vanished reality: Hunger craves a surfeit, and refugees treasure even trivial household relics. This vanished world of the shtetl is refracted and magnified artistically like the melodrama of folk-tales in the wide-eyed lens of Hollywood. Simple things that are lost become heavy with meaning, and thus immortal, as if the dead generations would be perpetuated in the new. And there is the source of that strangely cheerful Jewish melancholy, the sense that Life and Death are both family, and must be welcomed. But this is an old-world characteristic, and probably rendered extinct by recent history. Today there is only the memory of such Memory, like taking a negative impression of light, then taking a negative of the negative (a positive, conventionally) before the preserved trace of light can be re-illuminated and brought back to consciousness, as Anna naively explains the process of developing the film. And this strange persistence of evanescent ghosts becomes a moving procession of dear and touching fragments of real life, that our primordial urge to identify and recognise has generalized out of personal particularity into a common possession: An Archetype or Icon, standing for all humanity. And these types are the basis for simple stories which have the grandest import, and are consequently retold forever.Identity, after all, is only the personal story we repeat for ourselves and others, so that we can become the person we think we are. That is par excellence the Jewish genius, They inhabit their own story. Such self-creators forced to wander the Earth easily re-invented themselves in the myth of the American Dream, and thereby incorporated the gentile’s Dreamtime into their own narrative, making it accessible to all. They did it with text in Biblical times, and again with film in this modern era: As the grandfather of the alienated, self-denying Motl/Maurice might well observe of this Anti-Jewish denial, ‘That’s the sort of Jew you are’. Anyone with a Judaeo-Christian inheritance ought to be able to understand and admit that !

  10. critique Says:

    No-one has mentioned the blurring of fact into fiction, by story-telling and filmic editing, so that the fiction becomes fact, because it supplants the historical, primary evidence. Also, the young filmmaker was obsessed with the machinery, but had little creative talent – his stories came from his fellow-villagers, and his editing skills from Anna..
    (Why his accent cam from p.c. English to cod-German when in America, I could not understand – preumably because he was speakiing in a foreign tongue. The play was also about words – Sher’s character lexplains this n act 1 (and he can’t read); the singer can’t sing, do the real singer loses the part.
    Literally, there’s more to the play than meets the eye; perhaps because I saw it in the film transmission helped a lot

  11. Linda Says:

    Last night I saw Travelling Light in Munich via the NTL.
    It was truly disappointing compared to other productions.
    The Jakob’s endless speeches , the very strange mixture of accents. A Tweeted question to the discussion group afterward asked if Jakob’s accent was based on Borat’s. It certainly sounded that way.
    In general, it was pretty boring and a rehash of shtetl
    theatre we’ve all seen already.

    • Christine Kilby Says:

      Thank God I wasn[‘t the only one who was, on the whole, bored bored bored. I had to be given a nudge at one point and that is something I really try to avoid, no matter how bad the performance!

  12. Harriett Ferziger Says:

    I saw this (as a film) in California and was, frankly, charmed by it. But I guess I’m lucky to be descended from the very characters who populated this production — Eastern European Jewry.

  13. Rosemary Kornfeld Says:

    comment from Australia; expatriate NYer. My, what
    intricate comments for & against we have! Found it
    enjoyable & relevant, portraying a significant cultural background of the film industry in a delightful manner.
    Not Shakespeare, but an important production well
    performed. Have a full glass of wine!

  14. Nicky Says:

    Is this another Vanity Project? Is this meant to be the start of LA? Sounds like the sun is missing.

  15. I saw this during the Bank Holiday weekend and I thought it was a wonderful play.

    I felt the use of accents made sense – Jakob had a strong accent because he couldn’t speak the local dialect very well. The villagers had neutral / English accents in the village scenes because they were meant to be speaking their own language.

    Motl / Maurice has an accent in US because he wasn’t speaking his native language. All perfectly logical and I didn’t find it at all distracting. I remember the UN Inspector used a similar tool.

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