these are the abstracts of my time
Now, let me declare my prejudice: I prefer the stage to the screen and I had my doubts about watching a play being shown in a cinema environment. But it’s that time of year when I might not want to be travelling home from London in the snow at midnight, so I opted for a ticket to see Nicholas Wright’s play, Travelling Light, at The Maltings in Farnham, screened as part of the National Theatre’s venture of broadcasting live plays to cinemas around the world.
One of the reasons for my prejudice is that there is a sense of jeopardy in stage acting that you just don’t get in films. Someone might fall over or forget their lines, fake beards may come unglued, some butterfingers could send a vital prop spinning across the stage. It’s a bit like watching Formula One: there might be a car-crash. And as with the racing driver, what’s required of a stage actor is maximum alertness. This is what makes live theatre really live.
So I wondered whether the live-ness of this performance would be diminished by my knowledge that someone was in the control box determining how the play was delivered to the screen – the choice of camera angles, the mix of close-up and long shots – and that the audience gaze, which has so much more freedom in a theatre, was being directed. In fact, I need not have worried. The experience was a very positive one. I had no sense that this was a play that had somehow become a film. In reality, nobody was going to get the luxury of a re-take if something went wrong and, in some sense, the jeopardy was increased by the knowledge that the world-wide audience for this play was massively bigger and more diverse than any National Theatre play would usually have.
The play itself is a gentle narrative of a poor Jewish boy who learns the basics of film making in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Eastern Europe and then migrates to Hollywood to find fame and fortune as a movie director. It is structured as a flashback, beginning in 1936, when the successful movie director begins to narrate the story of his younger self. This is a simple story, often as sentimental and corny as a Hollywood romance. The characters are stereotypes (or do I mean archetypes?) and the conflict between the ambitious, young, would-be ‘arthouse’ director (Motl Mendl, played by Damien Molony) and his brash, populist financial backer (Antony Sher as Jacob Bindel) epitomises a division that continues in the film industry to this day. In a sense, there is something of the parable in this play, and what it lacks in psychological depth, it makes up for in the way that it prefigures all the perils and pitfalls of the film industry. The story plays on the notion that most narratives can be boiled down to a very few basic types: boy-meets-girl, the overcoming of an obstacle, the defeat of a monster, the quest, the chase, etc., and that the magic of cinema lies in its ability to turn what used to be the purely verbal narrative of the folk tale into a visual form, a spectacle that enables its audience to escape from the everyday world into a kind of dreamscape.
What I thought worked best in seeing this play via a cinema screen was that, whereas at many points in the drama the audience at the National Theatre were watching pieces of film projected onto the back of the set, with the actors and stage scenery still in full view, this was not the experience that the audiences watching the NT Live broadcast actually had. The pieces of silent film occupied the whole of the screen and so it was possible to encounter the film made by the young Motl in a very immersive and all-consuming way. For me, it was an illustration of the dreamlike quality of many early films and the immensely dramatic power of the silent gaze.
The verve with which this play was acted was very enjoyable in its context because the performances of Damien Molony, Lauren O’Neil (as Anna, the actress, assistant and lover of Motl) and especially of Anthony Sher were often slightly larger than life in a manner that was reminiscent of early Hollywood films. The set and costumes also reflected the naive style of early cinema. In all, I felt that the content and form of this piece of drama were cleverly woven together.
In the final analysis, theatre and cinema both come from the same place – from people sitting around a fire and telling stories. There is a simplicity in that fact that is reflected in Travelling Light. I did not find it particularly sophisticated or deep, but it was a comfortingly human way to spend an evening.
I think I shall give NT Live another outing when The Comedy of Errors comes around (1 March).
Nicholas Wright’s Travelling Light is directed by Nicholas Hytner.