Travelling Light – February 2012

7/10

By Nicholas Wright

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st February 2012

This was the story of a young Jewish man in an Eastern European shtetl, Motl Mendl, being inspired by a motion picture camera to make movies, and his subsequent career in Hollywood – sort of Fiddler On The Roof meets Tales From Hollywood. It’s set around the end of the nineteenth century and in 1936, with the 1936 character being the narrator for the earlier parts, having changed his name to Maurice Montgomery.

The set was craftily designed to double as the inside of a house in the shtetl and a film set of the inside of a house in a shtetl. Curving round the back was a white curtain which acted as a screen for the movie clips, some of which were also shown on the wall of the room facing us. Below the screen were the rooftops of the other houses in the town, screened by the room itself. A long back wall had a door on the left to the aunt’s small room, a main door in the middle and an alcove on the right which seemed to be the developing room; it could be screened off with a curtain. On the far right wall, above the single bed, were photographs taken by Motl’s father, the village photographer. To the left were the table and chairs, sideboard, etc. In the middle stood a Lumière Brothers Cinematograph, facing the wall; it had two gas tanks at the back for the limelight, and a large wooden stand.

Motl’s father had died some time before, and Motl had only just returned to the shtetl, having missed the funeral. He was hopefully employed as a journalist – hopefully because they hadn’t actually published any of his stories yet – and he wanted to sort out his father’s things and get back to the city as soon as possible. With his aunt telling him the express train didn’t always stop at their station (a fib, as we discovered later) and a local family very keen to have a photograph of their son before he went away to the army, Motl ends up taking not just some photographs of the young man and his parents, but also a short moving picture.

The father was so taken with this that he came every day for a week to watch this movie, projected onto the wall of the room. I don’t remember when they started using the back screen as well to show these movies on a larger scale; it could have been from the start, and they also used the bigger screen when there was no action on stage or the projector wasn’t in use. Anyway, Motl has decided he wants to make movies now, but has no money. Jacob, the father, has been so moved by being able to see his son on film that he recognises a money-making opportunity; if he enjoyed seeing this movie, perhaps everyone will enjoy seeing themselves or loved ones on screen. After a lengthy explanation of his background and his rise to prosperity and respect within the shtetl, Jacob agreed to pay for enough film to capture life in their town. His accountant, Itzak, who was also his son-in-law, had arrived by this time, and the author takes a poke at the involvement of money-men in film-making a couple of times, especially when Itzak’s penny-pinching leads to an embarrassing shortfall in the fiddler department (more on that story later).

Jacob also sent along one of his servants, Anna, to help Motl with his film-making. She’s a very attractive young woman and clever too. It took Motl some time to fall for her – he thought it was just about getting her to star in one of his movies – but they were soon spending time together on the mattress. She also had the idea to edit the bits of film from around the shtetl to tell a story, and even though the locals could all tell that it wasn’t the rabbi buying a coat in the tailor’s shop, they still enjoyed the movie, although the initial focus group, set up by Jacob to make sure the movie is as good as it can be, was full of picky complaints – nothing changes.

From this beginning, they moved on to the make another movie which told the sad story of a woman, spurned by her father and sent out into the world with nothing, etc., etc. Jacob’s daughter thought that she would play the lead role, but both Jacob and Motl wanted Anna to do it. The daughter wasn’t too happy with this, and played one of the sulkiest maids you’ve ever seen, but the combination of producer and director proved too much for her. Mind you, the director had a lot of trouble with the producer’s interference during filming – like I said, nothing changes.

With the filming done, Motl left the shtetl and took the train to the city. Anna had told him she was pregnant, but pretended it might not be his, and his desire to make more and better movies made it a relatively easy decision to leave. During the 1936 sections we learned that he was making a movie based on these early experiences, and after he’d explained a lot of this story to a young actor who would be playing him in the movie, we got to hear the rest of the story from the young man himself; it followed the plot of the staged movie remarkably closely.

They finished the piece with Maurice stepping back into the past and the early characters coming into the room for Shabbos. As the aunt placed her hand over her eyes, the lights went down to end the play – a slightly downbeat ending, but OK.

I did wonder if they could have introduced the framing device earlier, perhaps even from the beginning; we didn’t meet the young man and learn of the intended movie until the start of the second half. But this is only a minor point; the real fun was in the rich detail of the shtetl experience and the beginnings of movie-making, with the reminder of the strong Jewish influence on the early days of Hollywood. Although this play covered some familiar territory, I did still learn some things, and the characters and the humour made for an entertaining afternoon. The performances were all excellent, and the ability of the National to get a good size cast on the stage really helps with the group scenes.

And as for the shortfall in the fiddler department? For the scene where Anna‘s character finds out about her long-lost daughter, Motl had wanted a fiddler to play background music to help her produce the emotional responses he needed for the scene – this was silent movies, remember. To cut costs, Itzak hired a youngster as the regular fiddler was going to charge too much. Everyone was disconcerted when a young boy turned up to do the job. Seeing their attitude, he made some scratchy sounds when they first asked him to play, but he was just winding them up. When it came to the real thing, he put bow to strings and played beautifully; it was a very moving piece. A voiceover by the narrator told us who he probably was – Jascha Heifetz!

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rattigan’s Nijinsky – July 2011

6/10

By: Terence Rattigan and Nicholas Wright

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th July 2011

We attended a pre-show talk with the co-author of this piece, Nicholas Wright, which was very interesting. I often find, though, that when I haven’t seen the play, I either learn so much about the production that it spoils my enjoyment, or I don’t fully appreciate the information as I have nothing to relate it to. This one was probably the latter.

The play itself weaves together parts of a screenplay that Rattigan wrote towards the end of his life about the love affair between Nijinsky and Diaghilev – his first overt piece about homosexuality – and a framing piece by Nicholas Wright about the decision Rattigan made to withdraw the screenplay from production due to the threat of being publicly outed by Nijinsky’s widow, Romola. The action of the screenplay appears to Rattigan in his hotel room due to artistic licence and the hallucinogenic effects of a morphine concoction he was taking to dull his pain. (From the pre-show, this potion was introduced to represent Rattigan’s self-medication with the drug when he was in hospital.)

The interlacing of the two plots was well done, and allowed for some fun moments, with Rattigan the only one who could see both ‘realities’. It also allowed him to discuss the screenplay story with Diaghilev directly, and while this was a good way to tie the two stories together, I felt it made the play into too much of drama-doc. Even if Rattigan was writing more openly about a homosexual love affair, he would have done it by showing us the characters, theirs actions and words. Less repressed than usual, perhaps, but still a direct expression rather than via a narrator. This method over-simplified the Diaghilev/Nijinsky story too much for me, and I found it a bit dull as a result. Not the fault of the performers, of course, who all did a great job, often in numerous parts.

My other difficulty with the play was that ballet doesn’t really interest me as an art form, and while I’ve seen a few, and will occasionally watch documentaries on the subject, the characters just didn’t engage me as much as I would have liked. I did find the second half more interesting, as I didn’t know so much of the history after The Rites Of Spring, and I would be happy to watch the program if the screenplay was actually filmed, but overall that part didn’t impress me as Rattigan’s best work.

The framing sections worked quite well, showing us both Romola Nijinksy in her later years and Rattigan’s mother, chatting with him several years after her death – what was in that bottle? – along with Cedric Messina, the producer who wants to film the screenplay. There are a lot of parallels drawn between the two stories. Nijinsky is doubled with a young hotel porter called Donald, who clearly fancies Rattigan and ends up sharing a couch with him. Jonathan Hyde plays both Diaghilev and Cedric Messina, showing us their contrasting production styles. It’s artfully done, but didn’t give me any extra insights to the situation or characters.

What makes the production watchable are the performances, all of which are very good. Faye Castelow is particularly beguiling as the young Romola who sets out to ensnare Nijinsky, and succeeds with the help of a third party. Jonathan Hyde is also excellent as Diaghilev, and I loved Susan Tracy’s cameo as Rattigan’s mother. Malcolm Sinclair is fine as Rattigan himself, and the ensemble support is strong throughout, despite the shortage of lines for many of the small parts. I enjoyed the dancing, even though Petrouchka’s never been my favourite, and the music was very classy, of course. I’m not sure this piece does justice to the screenplay that Rattigan wrote, but it’s an interesting experiment in itself, and for all the polish of this early performance (only the second preview) it may well improve with time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Therese Raquin – November 2006

Experience: 3/10

By Emile Zola, adapted by Nicholas Wright

Directed by Marianne Elliot

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 28th November 2006

          This was a disappointment in a number of ways. Although it started off well, and the performances were excellent, the adaptation has problems, and the production lacked the thrill and suspense I associated with the first version we saw back at Chichester in 1990.

         One of the main difficulties I had was with the “music”. I presume they were trying to depict the tension the couple were living under after the murder, and were using a repetitive, droning chord – I don’t know what instrument was being used, but for me it was an instrument of torture. I believe such sounds are actually used to cause people physical discomfort, and it certainly worked that way for me. I didn’t find it too disturbing until near the end, but by then it was giving me a headache and making it very hard to concentrate on the play. I even considered leaving, but reckoned I didn’t have much longer to endure – even so, I wouldn’t voluntarily go through that sort of abuse again.

         One advantage of the Chichester production was the small space of the Minerva Theatre, which made the whole atmosphere much more claustrophobic. On the Lyttelton stage, a wide open space, it was much harder to create that sense, although the description of the flat as draughty was certainly believable. Somehow the couple’s secret passion didn’t come across so well, perhaps because Therese was played with very little show of emotion, so a lot of the action seemed a bit dreary at times. We certainly didn’t need such a long series of tableaux of the couple’s restlessness and divisions – once through the loop would have been more than enough. Frankly, by the time they chose to end it all, I was glad to see the back of them.

         The set was pretty bleak. A large room, with windows high up, grey walls everywhere, a kitchen area off left, flanking the stairway down to the shop, doors to a walk-in wardrobe, the door to Madame Raquin’s room, then the cubby-hole bed for the son and niece. With only a large table and a few chairs to furnish it, this flat looked very empty. A screen was used to distance us from the action at the start and end of scenes, God knows why, as I already felt distanced enough from the action after a short time. The cast were superb, given the limitations of the adaptation. Camille was talkative and fussy, just the sort of husband you’d want to bump off if a looker like Ben Daniels came your way. I didn’t feel the sense of danger with his Laurent as I did first time round, but that’s this production for you. Therese was very withdrawn, though she did show her passionate side in the early scene with Laurent. Mainly, she seemed to hate rather than love, to want revenge for the way she’d been treated, and sex with Laurent was as good a way as any. Definitely a woman to avoid. It’s not clear in this version how often they’ve been having sex, possibly just the once? Maybe I was just missing bits – with such a large auditorium (more of a lecture hall than a theatre) it can be difficult to pick up all the dialogue.

         The family friends – M Grivet and M Michaud – who turn up regularly to play dominoes, were great fun, especially Mark Hadfield as Grivet, all fussiness and self-concern. Madame Raquin managed a good line in self-concern as well, resolutely thinking of nobody but herself, and by extension, Camille, the whole play through. Actually, it’s a little amazing that Therese stayed as sane as she did.

         I found Suzanne, Michaud’s niece, an odd character. The part seemed to be well enough played, although I probably missed more of her lines than anyone else’s, but I was never too clear on what her part in the drama was. Was she just there to show a more normal approach to relationships? Or were we meant to contrast her naivety and idealism with Therese’s experience and world-weariness? We may never know. And given that I didn’t enjoy this production enough, I’m unlikely to read the playtext to find out.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me