Travelling Light. National Theatre. Leeds Grand Theatre. 24-03-12

Damien Molony as Motl Mendl and Lauren O’Neill as Anna Mazowiecka. Production photograph by Johan Persson.

Nicholas Wright’s new play Travelling Light takes us back to the Jewish origins of early American cinema and into the heart of a small shtetl community. It is about the birth of storytelling in cinema- the moment when people moved beyond simply amazing people by showing them footage of themselves and their neighbours and realised that they themselves could make things happen on screen. It was a revelation which led to an explosion of creativity and a new obsession for the waiting audiences and it changed the lives of those who were the pioneers of the new industry. It is a tremendous subject.

Antony Sher as Jacob Bindl and Damien Molony as Motl Mendl. Production photo by Johann Persson.

Like many of the original Jewish cinema pioneers and moguls Motl Mendl, (Damien Molony) the young hero of Travelling Light, is restless and dynamic and he has ideas which are far too big for him to be able to stay close to his roots. He needs money to fulfil his ambitions which Jacob Bindl (Antony Sher) a wealthy timber merchant, is able to provide on condition that he stays at home. To the bafflement and admiration of his small community he uses the money to start to tell their stories on screen, using his neighbours as actors and the shtetl as a setting. The whole community becomes involved, too involved, and his creativity becomes compromised. Jacob wants to direct and he also wants the woman who is at the centre of Motl’s life and creativity. The situation is never going to be resolved without great cost and sacrifice.

Damien Molony as Motl Mendl and Lauren O’Neill as Anna Mazowiecka. Production photo by Johan Persson.

The production is beautiful to look at. Bob Crowley’s design gives us a realistic Shtetl community and Bruno Poet’s lighting design is atmospheric and haunting. A giant screen across the back allows us to see film extracts which can be both touching and funny. The supporting cast do an excellent job of peopling the Shtetl with warmth and humour, and make a believable community. Lauren O’Neil has a nice dignified presence as Anna, Motl’s love, and Antony Sher is a wonderful actor who has no difficulty whatsoever in giving us Jacob, with all his warmth, enthusiasm and irritating contradictions and interferences. The stand out performance, however, comes from Damien Molony as Motl. The part needs a young actor who is dynamic and full of conviction as the play relies on the audience buying into his passion for cinema and willing him to succeed, and it has found one. This is only Damien Molony’s second stage role, after a stunning stage debut as Giovanni in Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and he is a joy to watch. He is able to play strong emotion with great economy and truth and that is a real gift.

There is a lot to admire about this production then, and a lot that is interesting and engaging. My only sadness comes from the fact that some of Nicholas Wright’s writing doesn’t quite match up to the quality of the production which it is given by Nicholas Hytner as director, and his company. The ending is a little rushed, with too much information given rather too suddenly, and the device of having an older Motl looking back at his early life isn’t quite made to work well enough. It is not bad writing- I would hate anyone to think that- but I feel quite strongly that this story had the potential to be a great play rather than a good one which was helped along by a talented cast, a clever production and a beautiful stage design and that is a shame.


3 comments on “Travelling Light. National Theatre. Leeds Grand Theatre. 24-03-12

  1. Freia says:

    Hello Patricia,
    Please, dont’t blame my candid long comment and my bad writing, but english is not my language, so I’m really trying my best to tell you how much I’m happy to discover your blog and how I love it ! The thing is I’ve been led to it by one of your beautiful pictures of the sea (one of my vital obsessions). And then I realized it was the 2d time I visited it (1st one was for your rewiew of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore). So I decided to stay a little longer and explore…
    How amazing to see that you’re doing here something really similar (sorry to say that, I understand that could sound not like a compliment –but it is !) to what I’m willing to do in the new blog I’ve just created (kind of records of my being, I think… for the moment anyway), except for the art rewiews (love to read yours, so interesting and well written !, but I don’t feel like I could do that because of the work it requires, though I must admit I’ve yet done it a little bit, in a way, writing notes about things I want to remember…). And how funny to find out you’re a teacher too… ! I teach french literature and language, in a lovely south of France countryside area, and I’m in love with english language, literature and culture since I first met them at school. I fell for the poems you quote in the right column : a wonderful opportunity for me to train my weakening memory by learning some new texts by heart ! I live for poetry, music and SIGHT (vision, point of view, everything it involves and means). So, I’m obviously fascinated by photography, painting and theatre. I take many pictures of the sea, just like you do, though they are quite different (first because it’s the Mediterranean sea, and I don’t claim they could be as good as yours, of course), and I also have one of my elongated shadow –a Platonic pattern-… but on a blossoming grass ground !
    I was lucky enough to be in London two weeks ago, and see The Conquest of The South Pole at the Arcola, and Travelling Light at the National Theatre. Lucky enough too, to have a word (pathetic, can’t help blaming myself about this) with Damien Molony after the show : I was determined to ask him especially about how he managed to play Giovanni part, for I never had the opportunity to see Ford’s play but was amazed when I read it, and what he thought about the character. He kindly answered my question, but I didn’t dare keeping him too long, and swallowed my other questions and comments about how the character looks like Sophocle’s Oedipus, how strange Travelling Light is a song by Billie Holiday telling Anna’s story, etc. Well, that was a lovely meeting, anyway… And today, I’m just mad at myself discovering Antony Sher adapted and played Primo Levi If This Is a Man : I would have loved to ask him a little about this if I could (for I saw him going out too) ! Damn… I want to kick myself.
    Well -and apologies !- I don’t want to bother you any longer, I was just feeling the urge to say how I enjoy the found of your blog and the sharing of your vision about certain things.
    I’ll try to follow you regularly (not that I wouldn’t really like to, but because I have so few time left to do what I’d like to !), and LEARN from you, as you allow me to ! Learn language, litterature, and beautiful way of thinking and looking at the world. Thank you so much for this.
    (PS : I must not forget to tell you might register on Twitter, I would be delighted to follow your tweets ^^)
    All the best !

    • patricia1957 says:

      Thank you so much Freia! We have more in common than you will know from my blog. 🙂 If you are on facebook it would be lovely to be facebook friends. You can send a request through the blog link if you would like to. I shall send you a longer reply tomorrow. I have also met Damien Molony!
      Best Wishes,

      • Freia says:

        Thanks so much for your reply, Pat !! *happy smile*
        No, I have no Facebook account (no use, for the moment), just a fresh Twitter one (btw : told me Mr Stephen Fry was in your area today !), blogs, emails. I’d be delighted you tell me more ! Here, or by mail, as you wish, for I assume you have my email address now, and it’s a real one.
        Can’t wait to read more from you (love to share knowledge, experience, and points of view) !,
        Have a nice evening,

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