Screen Legends: Andrew Billen Fails to Be Charmed by a Film Fantasy with No Roots in Reality
Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Reading the text of Travelling Light, I realised that Nicholas Wright's new fantasy about the birth of American cinema was away with the fairies but, I hoped, in a magical way. When I went to see it, however, I saw a troupe trying very hard to be charming, when they needed to try a lot harder to be dramatic, and all the best bits happening in silence in film clips projected above the set.
What is this fantasy? Nothing less than that Hollywood was born in the shtetls of eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. Wright's ambition in making up a back story for Louis B Mayer, Cecil B DeMille and Sam Goldwyn, and, indeed, an explanation for the Jewish dominance of US cinema, is audacious.
Wright invents a lad called Motl Mendl who, following the death of his father, returns to his native village from an unburgeoning newspaper career in an unnamed big city. Back home, he discovers that his father, a commercial photographer, had recently bought a cinematograph, a device that could both shoot and project moving film. Presumably, the machines, developed by the Lumiere brothers, were taking root everywhere but Wright sees the tightknit, commercially driven Jewish village as especially fertile soil.
From it, he claims, flowered the commercial cinema that we enjoy and deplore today. Motl's assistant Anna, the most comely non-Jew in the shtetl, persuades him that it is not enough simply to record real life. By judicious cutting, an old man going into and leaving a store on separate days can be made to look like an old man going in and buying a coat. The older Motl, transformed into the studio head Maurice Montgomery, speaks from the vantage point of California in 1936. It was, he exclaims, nothing less than "the first example of dramatic montage in the entire history of cinema".
But there is more. Motl is bankrolled by the local timber merchant, Jacob Bindel (Antony Sher), who, with the help of his accountant, sees that there may be money in films if they can be shown in many places.
The illiterate Bindel is a master of pre-print storytelling and is soon contributing artistic advice. It is, for example, his brainwave to show whom an actor is thinking about by having a second face appear, cloud-like, above him. In the play's funniest scene, the entire village becomes a focus group, offering suggestions, deletions and happy endings. Bindel is, we understand, Motl/Maurice's first "producer". He even invents the casting couch, for he casts Anna as his star in order to bed her.
There is not the slightest evidence for any of this back story. …