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Film on stage

Nicholas Wright’s new play Travelling Light is a love letter to the silent film era.


Someone at the National Theatre owes Harvey Weinstein a thank-you note. The National’s latest play, Travelling Light, opened last night and it couldn’t be better timed with The Artist’s awards-season smash success.

Like The Artist, it’s another love letter to early moviemaking.

Nicholas Wright’s play is set in a shtetl in Eastern Europe as a young man, Motl Mendl, finds his dead father’s Lumiere Brothers Cinematographe and starts filming (and screening) moving pictures around the village.

We follow as Motl experiences cinema as a completely new artform: figuring out filming, editing, and suffering through nitpicky test screenings, casting couches and creative differences. There are many laughs. We also meet Motl as an older man in 1936 Hollywood – where he’s a mogul rechristened Maurice Montgomery (the play hammers home how Jewish heritage made its stamp on the early days of Hollywood.)

Silent films (new, but impressively vintage-looking) projected on set as part of the production bring that love of cinema to the forefront of the show.

The star attraction was Antony Sher as the overbearing producer, and I was also quite impressed by the energetic performance by relative newcomer Damien Molony (in a double role as Motl and a Hollywood actor).

The story seemed to go over well, I overheard comments during the interval such as “surprisingly moving” and “really charming.”

National director Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys) directs and the film crowd already seems to be embracing it – on opening night I spotted audience members Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh (who has his own play at the National, Grief.)

Travelling Light will be broadcast live on Feb 9 to more than 100 UK cinemas as part of NT Live. The stage production will be on tour in the UK in March and April.

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