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Contributors and Back Matter Vol 44

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies , volume 44, 2012 Reviews Travelling Light, National Theatre, London, January 201 i-March 2012; on tour March April 2012 at The Lo wry, Salford; Grand Theatre, Leeds; Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury; Theatre Royal, Newcastle Travelling Light is a new play by Nicholas Wright. It can be summarized as a blend of the 1988 bookyíw Empire of Their Own and the films Barton Fink (dir. Joel Coen, 1991), The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius, 201 1), Fiddler on the Roof (dir. Norman Jewison, 1971) and A Serious Man (dir. Joel Coen, 2009) but which meets, unfortunately, Borat : Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (dir. Larry Charles, 2006). It is light, humorous, folksy entertainment, never dull, but a play that falls down because of a problem which has long marred British-Jewish film, television and radio: accents (more on that below). Nicholas Wright (b. 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa) is a British play- wright and screenwriter best known for such non-Jewish fare as his plays Vincent in Brixton on Vincent van Gogh or The Last Duchess on Wallis Simpson, as well as war films, romances and musical comedies. Travelling Light thus represents a significant departure from his usual subject matter of stories based on real-life figures into new and fictional Jewish territory. The reception of the play has been mixed. The Jewish Chronicle's chief drama correspondent John Nathan, for example, found it "surprisingly heavy going" and "in danger of becoming tedious". Yet he commended the per- formance of Antony Sher. Nathan's colleague, Jennifer Lipman, however, was far more damning. At least on the night I was there, the theatre was full and the play well, if not extravagantly, applauded. Travelling Light has clearly taken its cue from Neil Gabler's An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (London: W. H. Allen). This book attempts to document how a group of largely Russian-Jewish immigrant schmatte entrepreneurs managed to take over Hollywood and make it into a Jew's view of what the goyim wanted to see. It is a topic that is in desperate need of re-evaluation. Following yíw Empire of Their Own, the play essentially boils down the creation of the film industry we understand today to the lucky breaks and artistic trials and errors of a seemingly not-too-bright nebbish , modelled on the eponymous anti-hero of the Coen Brothers' own homage to the studio system of the 1940s, Barton Fink . The play is told almost entirely in flashback from the vantage point of 232</page><page sequence="2">Reviews Hollywood in 1936, as Maurice Montgomery (Paul Jesson), a Hollywood mogul who by this point has mutated into an analogue of Fink's boss, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), himself a blend of Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn in the same film, reflects back on his past and beginnings as a film pioneer in an unnamed Yiddish-speaking shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe around the dawn of the twentieth century. Twenty-two-year-old Moti Mendl (Damien Moloney), who ran away from home in search of bigger things aged fifteen, returns when he learns that his father is dying. However, due to a mix up, he does not receive his aunt's telegram in time and arrives two months after his father's death. Nevertheless, as an only child, Moti inherits his father's Lumiere cinemato- graph and camera and is persuaded by his aunt, Tsippa (Sue Kelvin) together with Jacob Bindel (Antony Sher), an illiterate but successful and ebullient timber merchant, to expand his father's portrait business into making motion pictures. Mod is initially reluctant but is persuaded by Tsippa and Bindel. At first, Bindel proposes to finance a documentary film about life in the shtetl . Bindel sends over his shabbes goya , Anna Mazowiecka (Lauren O'Neil), to assist Mendl, or to keep an eye on him, depending on how you look at it. Moti is also overseen by Bindel's accountant and son-in-law. Together, Moti and Anna stumble their way through the pioneering discoveries of early cinema: cutting and splicing, close-ups, continuity editing, not acknowledging or looking directly at the camera, shooting out of sequence, montage, tracking and tilting shots, mass exhibition and the possibilities of narrative fiction film. At the same time, they grow closer and closer in their affections. However, Moti, who yearns for artistic purity and personal vision, learns a bitter lesson in the other side of the motion picture business: he who pays the piper calls the tune. As they embark on a narrative fiction film (rather than a documentary), with as wide an appeal as possible, Moti and Bindel become increasingly at loggerheads with poor Anna (who is ironically transformed into a Lillian Gish lookalike when photographed close up) caught in the middle. As Bindel's demands grow more strident, Mod desires his freedom and sees emigration to America as his only hope of escape. The staging is mostly of the interior of a shtetl dwelling, clearly modelled on the landscapes of Marc Chagall, the writing of Eva Hoffman and the opening sequence of the Coens' A Serious Man . We see Mod's rushes (the raw footage shot daily but which was not then known by that term) projected onto the rear wall of the theatre, which has been cleverly barrel-shaped, recalling early widescreen cinematic technologies. Onto this screen is pro- jected Mod/ Anna's capturing of the shteď s denizens cheerily waving at the camera that becomes the stuff of early silent melodramas. At the same time, these films are an elegy to a culture and way of life which, tragically, we know 233</page><page sequence="3">Reviews all too well, was destroyed by the Nazis. This is only hinted at by the location of the play's 'present' in 1936 but it nonetheless casts a shadow over the entire play. Damien Molony plays both Moti and Nate Driver (né Dershowitz), an aspiring New York 1930s stage actor whom Maurice has persuaded to star in a biopic of his own life. Thus in an ingenious device, are what we watching the product of Maurice/Mod's memory or a filmic recreation of that memory on a Hollywood soundstage, which the set is revealed to be at one point? The answer is never clear. However, the play is let down on two fronts. Firstly, it resorts to simple stereotype on two levels. There is the musical cliché of using klezmer to evoke the historical setting. While this music may be contextually correct, its overuse to code Jewishness in British popular culture means that it has become hackneyed. Secondly, many of the Jewish characters are no more than ciphers, extras from a casting call for Fiddler on the Roof or Witness (dir. Peter Weir, 1985). Only Anna and Motl/Nate pass muster as fully rounded individuals. Yet, while Moti speaks in Received Pronunciation with no trace of a foreign accent, as the adult Maurice he inexplicably seems to have acquired one. Worse is to come in this respect. Antony Sher, as Bindel, fakes the kind of accent and ineffably poor grammatical sentence construction that would not be out of place if he were to play Borat's father in the film of the same name. This is a problem that has long marred representations of Jews in British popular culture. It results from Jewish executives, probably correctly calcu- lating that their audiences are neither particularly interested nor know much about Jews and Judaism, either removing references altogether or coding it in an overly stereotypical way. Consequently, British audiences are then only able to recognise a Jew/ ess if s/he sounds as though s/he has just stepped off the boat, whether it is in 19 10 or 2010, whether s/he is nine or ninety. The most recent example of this on film was The Infidel (dir. Josh Appignanesi 2010) but Maureen Lipman has been doing it for years. "It's absurdly schmaltzy, but I'll buy it!" cries Maurice Montgomery towards the end of the play and this is as good a description of the play as any review can conjure up. It has much potential but is let down as a nostalgic and tame love letter to the early days of the movies and fits into the worst tradi- tions of representations of Jewin British popular culture. Nathan Abrams 234</page></plain_text>