THE birth of motion pictures is hot news at the moment. The Artist is riding high in the awards lists while Travelling Light, The National Theatre’s wonderfully affectionate love letter to those pioneers of cinema, arrives at The Waterside Theatre later this month.
Travelling Light tells the story of one man’s obsession and ambition. His passion for moving images takes him from a remote Jewish village in eastern europe to the early days of Hollywood and is told largely in flashback with a now affluent and, undoubtedly, renowned movie producer, looking back on scenes from his life.
Travelling Light’s star is more used to playing psychopaths and lunatics plus all the usual suspects from Shakespeare including Shylock, Macbeth and Prospero but, in the larger-than-life figure of the patriarchial timber merchant Jacob Bindel actor, writer and artist Antony Sher has a chance to explore his Jewish roots and those of his family.
Sher admits that he, and his family, made the same journey, fleeing anti-semitism in 1890s Lithuania to settle in South Africa. The actor left his adopted homeland in 1968 for London to carve out a hugely successful career on the stage.
The central character in Travelling Light, an opportunist young man called Motl, leaves behind a woman who adores him, to follow his dreams in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Part of that process is dropping his Jewish name and anglicising it to Maurice and turning his back on his roots and his first love.
It’s The NT’s second comedy drama to come to the venue and follows the incredible success of last year’s triumphant One Man Two Guvnors with James Cordon. Travelling Light makes full use of Jewish humour which is an unbridled joy.
Sher plays a bear of a man, the uncouth and uneducated Jacob Bindel, who, seeing young Motl as a surrogate son, finances his early ventures, sharing with him a joint enthusiasm for the new media.
Speaking to the BH Tony admits that Motl’s story is a familiar one.
“I felt that strongly. The bits of the play that resonate for me, about leaving home, have an emotional tug that is completely irresistible.
“Motl has spent his life away from home and that rings very true for me every time especially when I go back to South Africa, particularly as I get older. It’s more and more meaningful, and I’ve been away a long time. I came here in 1968 but it still has a very powerful pull.
“Nick Wright’s story is a voyage of discovery for myself. The play starts in a shetl in eastern Europe.
“The shetl part of it is my own history because my grandparents came from Lithuania and two of them came from the same shetl called Plunge. In 1990 I went with The National on a cultural tour and the theatre helped me get back to Plunge.
“Unbelievably I got to see this place where my people were from. My family had left as shamed, second-class people because they were Jewish and there was much anti-semitism and much fear that the pogroms in Poland would reach Lithuania. They would not have believed that one day a Sher would have gone back there out of fascination and interest.
“The role of Jacob was something very different for me and so I immediately wanted to do it for that. I don’t normally get to play people like him, his kind of earthiness and his honesty. I tend to play a lot of psychopaths. He’s not a psychopath although he can be quite rough at times.
“He’s a man who lives off his emotions. I see him as a wild animal. He was a feral child, in the history that we hear, although he is now a tamed wild animal but who will attack if provoked.
“I didn’t have to research the character or the subject of the play because I’d already done it extensively for a novel that I wrote based on my family and the fact that I’d gone over there.
“I was sent the script by the NT and I absolutely loved it. That first read of a play is a very significant moment. You know almost instantly. I just knew I had to do it. I loved the part.
“I had discussions with director Nicholas Hytner about what Jacob would sound like. Because he’s illiterate, he’s not from this shetl and, we know from his history, that he’s been all over the place. Nick had written him speaking in broken English but he would have been speaking Yiddish and he had to sound different from all the other people. That’s how the character developed.
“In this very primitive early bit of film making you see the casting couch appear, the appearance of a a focus group, which film-makers hate, the demands of producers – it’s all very cheeky putting that in.
“This is very much a Jewish play. As an actor you get to play all sorts of parts but when you get to play a character that is part of your identity there’s just something in you that enjoys that in an extra way.
“So whenever I’ve played Jewish parts or gay parts or South African parts there’s something slightly more in it for me that’s very enjoyable.
“I seem to be playing a whole stream of Jewish parts lately. The Arthur Miller play, Broken Glass, that I’ve just done in the West End was a Jewish part and the next role I’m playing is Freud in Terry John’s play Hysteria.”
Travelling Light runs at The Waterside from March 27 to 31. For tickets call the box office 0844 8717607 or go online www.atgtickets.com/aylesbury