Sunday, 29 January 2012

Travelling Light

There is a resurgence of interest in silent films at the moment: The Artist has been hoovering up Oscar nominations and critical praise, and contemporary bands like Air and In the Nursery are finding inspiration for new music in old movies (please see below). Nicholas Wright's new play Travelling Light, now playing at the National Theatre, is another homage to the early days of the twentieth century's most popular art form. It is mainly set in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe 'around the dawn of the 20th century', and follows the fortunes of  Motl Mendl, a young drifter who has inherited his father's photographic equipment. Returning from the big city after seven fruitless years, he reluctantly revives the family business, but just as he wishes to leave the village again he is persuaded to stay and make movies, with the financial backing of a prosperous timber merchant. Anecdotal footage of village life soon loses its novelty value, and so they decide to film stories instead. Events are framed from 1936, where Motl, now Maurice Montgomery (it was common for Jewish emigrés to change their names to get on in America) looking back on his early years.

Travelling Light is clearly inspired by a fascination with early film and the life of the shtetl. And here it is at its strongest: the production of these early films comes over beautifully, and there is some lovely recreation (in surprisingly high definition, though?) projected above the actors. I'll take on trust that the depiction of the community life is accurate, though I was surprised not to hear of more religious objection to the enterprise - Kevin Brownlow's informative programme essay specifically mentions the biblical prohibition of graven images - and some of the accents and types (hard-dealing Jewish accountant etc.) seemed close to stereotypes. Nevertheless, it was all depicted with immense fondness, and with some delightful details (I loved the myth about the express train only stopping by special treaty with the staionmaster - in fact it always stops). Antony Sher is given a great platform for larger-than-life character acting with the part of Bindel, the timber merchant.

The play is inspired by history, and the history of a medium, but it does not seem to be much inspired by human character. It is in the treatment of relationships and the protagonist's story that it is at its weakest. Mendl is a type more interested in his art than in people, but this rather cold detachment makes it hard for us to become attached to him. There is no reason for protagonists to be especially likeable (think of the prig Stephen Dedalus) but they do need some depth for us to explore, and I couldn;t find much here. The romance interest was unengaging, and the part of Anna seemed to me underwritten, leaving Lauren O'Neil with too little material. At one point she makes a rather extraordinary comment about her attitude to sex, but this is not really explained or followed up. The plot rumbles through the familiar stops of Momentous Decision and Great Revelation, but I couldn't feel much affected by these. The young actor Nate Dershowitz in the second half has practically nothing to do apart from provide information, which gives us no real reson to care about him. Final references to a fire, and a present-meets-past closing vignette brought back memories of Arcadia, and only reminded me of how immensely moving I found the ending of that great work.

But I enjoyed Travelling Light greatly for what it had to offer. I should add that Grant Olding's music added greatly to the atmosphere. Listening to a radio programme on the history of early cinema on the way back, I could see how the play had cleverly traced the early years of the medium. The very first films were apparently shown in private houses. In 1895, the Lumiere brothers gave the first paying public screening, making that an iconic date. Films did not excite huge interest when they first appeared: audiences still preferred music hall and vaudeville, from which silent movies drew much of their language, and were presented as parts of variety shows. It was under directors like the 'magus' Mélies and D W Griffith that the creative potential of the medium was first explored.  Oddly, film is in some ways returning to its pre-cinema origins - watched privately or in small groups at home, with director's commentary on offer. Which is very pleasant. But one of the most amazing film expereiences I've ever had was seeing Abel Gance's Napoleon at the Festival Hall with a full symphony orchestra playing Carl Davis's score. If I ever got close to what those first audiences felt as the cinematoscope whirred away, it was then.