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.
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.
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.