Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Borat with a beardRadio Only Connect

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Borat with a beardRadio Only Connect

Article excerpt

Travelling Light

Lyttelton, in rep until 6 March, then touring


Royal Court, until 11 February

Last November I suggested that Nicholas Hytner had gone mad. Now he confirms the diagnosis with a new satire by Nicholas Wright, Travelling Light, which is the most embarrassing and mindless blunder I've ever seen on a subsidised stage. Hytner's November crime was to mount a retro sitcom about Stalin's terror. Now he baits the Russians again with a sketch-show set among the Tsarist peasantry.

Wright's play, which Hytner directs, asks what might have happened if a crew of Jewish bumpkins had made a movie in 1900 using an early hand-cranked camera.

We meet Motl Mendl, a jabbering numbskull armed with some film gear. He shoots five minutes of dreary footage in his shtetl and exhibits the results to his neighbours.

They savage the film with glee and then, by magic, they collectively brainstorm a gripping weepie about a knocked-up skivvy and the baby she abandons in an orphanage. A rich timber-merchant, Jacob, suggests some tweaks to the storyline and offers to fund the film on condition that his grasping son-in-law Itzak acts as budget manager.

Hey presto. A trio of bickering Hollywood muppets is born: Motl the megalomaniac director, Jacob the interfering producer and Itzak the miserly bean counter who says no to every fresh expense. The shoot is a nightmare of colliding egos and midway through Motl has a lightbulb moment. If he emigrated to America he could make films without interference from on high. 'Creatively I'd be free.' Enjoy that lonely gag. It's the pivot on which the whole evening rests.

And if you're planning to go, set your alarm.

It comes after four or five hours.

The tone throughout is frivolous, skimpy, unfelt, unmeant, full of overblown gestures and hollow cackles. Even as film history the script is nonsense. An interior scene couldn't possibly be lit by a few stained mirrors reflecting daylight through a window.

And it's unclear why a fiddler is hired to add a soundtrack to a silent film. Is 'silent' a particularly baffling concept at the National? Does anyone there speak English? The acting matches the script's perfunctory witlessness.

Antony Sher plays Jacob as Borat. That's all. He's Borat with a beard. A reductive, empty, copycat effort. Motl, played by Damien Molony, has been encouraged to perform with frenetic exaggeration, all flinging arms, hoiked eyebrows and arch smirks.

He's like a jobless thesp overdoing an audition for kids TV by reciting his lines while signing them for the deaf and demonstrating how to turn a cornflake box into Postman Pat's van. …

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