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