Theater Chat: Travelling Light

— by Hannah Lee

If you’ve ever wanted a theater vacation in London, as I have, you may find consolation in the telecast offerings at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.  Yesterday, I watched a broadcast of a current production, Travelling Light, now playing at the National Theatre on the South Bank of London.  The show was followed by a talkback with the playwright Nicholas Wright, the director Nicholas Hytner, and the film critic Jason Solomons.

More after the jump.
In an Academy Award season dominated by films that honor cinema’s glorious past such as Martin Scorcese’s Hugo (winning five technical awards) and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Score, and Best Costume Design), Travelling Light may seem redundant, but Nicholas Hytner said that themes come in cycles, and neither he nor Nicholas Wright knew that his colleagues were working on Hugo and The Artist.  The novelty is that Travelling Light imagines the backstory for a Hollywood mogul, named Maurice Montgomery, who’d shed his Jewish upbringing as Motl Mendl of the shtetl.  Film critic Jason Solomons noted that the real Hollywood titans- Samuel Goldwyn (born Schmuel Gelbfisz) and Louis B. Mayer (born Lazar Meir) – were born within a 100 miles of Vilnius, Lithuania.  [Other Jews influential in early cinema were Cecil B. de Mille, Jack Warner, and David O. Selznick.  More information could be obtained in Neil Gabler’s 1989 book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.]  The marvel was that the non-Jewish playwright was able to capture the tone and atmosphere of a mythical Jewish village in 1900, but Wright declared himself “an assimilated Gentile.”  (The one tone-deaf touch was when a character touched the side of the doorpost and missed where a real mezuzah would be placed.)

The narrator of Travelling Light looks back on his youth when he inherited a motion-picture camera from his father (from whom he’s been estranged for 7 years) and learned to make silent movies, bankrolled by the ebullient and illiterate timber merchant, Jacob Bintel, and assisted by the non-Jewish Anna, who also served as his muse and creative collaborator.  The silent footage of the novice director was projected overhead to the theater audience and wrung more emotion than did his fellow actors.  There was a dissonant clash between the genteel citified accents of the young Motl and the heavily accented English of his elder self, Maurice.  (My companion Aviva suggested that it was meant to convey the fluidity of his native tongue and the awkwardness of a new language.)   Finally, it was disturbing that the highly regarded actor, Antony Sher (awarded Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) for “services to theatre” in 2000), played the role of Jacob Bintel so broadly and with such atrocious diction that a member of the telecast audience asked if he was channeling the fictional character Borat as  created by Sacha Baron Cohen.  He could have been warming up to play Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof, although there was a young fiddler in the play, who could have been a young Jascha Heifetz (born in Vilnius in 1901), according to the narrator.

The availability of telecasts is great for theater buffs who cannot be there in person, but it is hampered by intrusion of the camera, which zooms in on actors who’ve train to perform for a larger audience.  Also, it limits the panoramic scope of the viewer who might wish to look at someone other than the subject of the camera’s focus.  I’ve attended live broadcasts of concerts, such as those of the Los Angeles Philharmonic as conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and that experience was absolutely enhanced by the camera’s ability to follow the conductor on-stage and back-stage.

Travelling Light will be broadcast again this Sunday at 1 pm.  The Bryn Mawr Film Institute is located at 824 W. Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr; its box office phone number is 610-527-9898.