“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.