Since 2009 the National Theatre’s live transmissions to cinemas have proved increasingly popular. It is fitting that the next NT Live event, on February 9, will involve Nicholas Wright’s new play about the early days of motion pictures. The play makes the point that it is the story and the audience connection that matter, whatever the medium.
In 1936, Hollywood mogul Maurice Montgomery looks back on his beginnings as Motl Mendl 40 years earlier in the “old country”. Returning to the shtelt where his photographer uncle had recently died, Motl discovers a Lumière Brothers cinématographe (a camera-cum-projector) and falls under the spell of film. Financed by timber-merchant Jacob, Motl begins shooting, only to find a stream of problems both technical and personnel-related.
Wright fantasises amusingly about these folk inventing the concepts of montage, continuity and even test screenings long before the first movie outfits had moved to Hollywood. The juxtaposition of now-familiar standard movie ideas in an unfamiliar setting is not unlike that in Terry Pratchett’s novel Moving Pictures, although the shtetl location here also emphasises the extent to which the pioneers of Hollywood were Jewish.
Motl finds his producer Jacob to be an unremitting backseat director, dictating everything from the set to the choice of star – someone whom he wants to bed and whom Motl just has bedded and must keep their relationship secret. Antony Sher has been exploring his Jewish heritage for some years, and he could hardly find a role more Jewish than Jacob – the prophet Isaiah perhaps? Lauren O’Neil is highly plausible as Anna, the apex of the love triangle: Motl first falls for her through the camera lens, and the camera does indeed love her.
The awkward narrator-and-flashback structure comes into focus in the second half of the play, when Damien Molony begins to double as both young Motl and Nate, an actor being auditioned by Montgomery. The interpersonal side of the story gains the ascendant: as Montgomery remarks of the sentimental pay-off, “It’s absurdly schmaltzy … but I’ll buy it.”