Golem – 1927 @ Young Vic Theatre, until 31 January (Tickets)
At its heart 1927’s Golem is a modern reworking of Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel, Der Golem, which itself was a retelling of the Prague Golem stories. The legend is a classic piece of Jewish folklore and the oldest narratives date to the Talmud and the very beginnings of Judaism. It is a story that has always held an instinctive appeal. In its most basic form it is about creating life out of inanimate matter something that can be identified in most of mankind’s origin myths but as society advanced something about the golem has meant the stories have retained their relevance. Golem stories became intertwined with its purpose as he unstoppable, implacable slave of its instruction. It can be seen in the mechanisation of the modern army and again through the prism of the Industrial Revolution that saw the skilled worker become expendable in the face of technological improvements.
The golem, in its nether-changing silence, seems always to reflect the images that a new generation projects upon it. 1927 are just the latest company to breathe life into the clay man and they do so with an extraordinary visual flair and breath-taking inventiveness. Whilst their central conceit, that modern society is a troublingly homogenous mass of cultural identity and branding, is not particularly original and also rather debatable, what cannot be denied is the originality of the company themselves and that they have, with Golem enjoying a sold-out residency at the Young Vic, announced their arrival as a major player on the UK theatre scene.
So what makes 1927 so impressive? Simply put they are leading the vanguard of companies that are using visual effects to question the limitations of the traditional theatrical space. VFX have been a game changer in challenging assumptions about what stories can and can’t be told on stage, and with Golem we are seeing theory turned into practice. Whilst it is not the perfect production – the quality of design, costume and musicianship does outweigh the quality of acting and writing – as a statement of intent it certainly leaves its mark.
VFX are used throughout the West End to provide the ‘value added’ – that extra little bit that makes you feel you haven’t wasted your money and time on a show. However if it is seen in these terms then it is little surprise that VFX rarely do more than add pizazz, it is far rarer to see VFX used to deepen the narrative or to have been carefully considered for its use in producing more complex sets.
The first time I was really aware of the power of VFX was in 2005 with the Menier Chocolate Factory’s wonderful production of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. It used technology to move the audience between the Art Institute of Chicago and the banks of the Seine. Watching Daniel Evan’s Seurat ‘paint’ the pointillist masterpiece onto a virtual backdrop was to see for the first time the possibilities that VFX brings to the theatre, and to see a narrative that was immeasurably strengthened by being integrated with the technology.
Since then VFX has continued to improve year-on-year to the extent that we are increasingly seeing the use of holograms as part of music gigs to create previously unimaginable ‘duets’. This year we saw Privacy at the Donmar that, whilst simultaneously highlighting the intrusiveness of modern technology, was first and foremost concerned with the visual experience and revelled in using high-end technology and high-speed internet to prove its point. Privacy could not have existed without the creation, and use, of the technology it rails against.
Even at Mimetic Festival, where budgets are the fraction of the Donmar and the Young Vic, we saw companies like Kill The Beast use VFX to allow them to perform Tom Baker’s The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, which ends with a fireball consuming most of Kent and enjoys a number of surreal locations that would be difficult to stage naturally.
Whilst the suspension of disbelief is a critical part of theatre and it isn’t too much to ask the audience to use their imagination to fill in the blanks left on stage, it does seem that theatre has become fixated on telling stories that are easily stageable. How many plays end up being set in the modern world, in one or two scene locations? Is this really reflecting the sum total of what potential audiences may wish to see onstage?
It is understandable for a playwright to act as their own censor because there would be little purpose writing plays that would never enter production due to financial constraints, but one only has to look at how often books and films veer into the realms of science-fiction and fantasy to see there could be a voracious audience for those prepared to think a little differently.
And 1927 are thinking very differently. Golem is a play in so much that it performs a story on stage in front of a live audience. However it seamlessly lays a visual backdrop onto the wall, which is as alive and as part of the performance as the actors. They recognise there is no need for static sets, it can move with the actors and interact with them. This is demonstrated by the fact that they never produce a golem outside of the virtual sphere and yet the golem is as integral to this production as any of the performers.
At times Golem is like watching a live-action cartoon – those moments of Who Framed Roger Rabbit when Bob Hoskins’ Eddie Valiant descends into Toon Town – and is set in a world unimaginably more complex and vivid then could have been dreamed up in the physical realm. We are given a whole, living breathing town projected onto a virtual backdrop. As Robert walks to work and goes to the local pub we see, even in cartoon form, what is recognisable from every middling high street across the country.
Golem is continually full of ‘how do they do that moments’ but 1927 are careful that the wow factor doesn’t undercut their storytelling. They achieve this by utilising a continuous jazz score supplied by drums and piano. It creates a constant momentum that propels the audience along and doesn’t allow them to stop and stare. We are forced to accept the driving pace that the company set for us.
The purists may sniff at what they see as a fad but it takes as much talent to produce the visuals as it does to recite Shakespeare at the Globe. It also attracts an audience that may see traditional theatre as conservative and are more attuned to a visual rather than verbal lifestyle, who are fully engaged in drawing from mixed-media content and whose influential cinematic memories are films like Titanic and Lord of the Rings rather than Star Wars and Jaws.
1927 are producing theatre that does not see itself limited by setting or cast. They are challenging the notion of what theatre is and what theatre could become, and they are currently head and shoulders above anyone else working the same field. Most importantly they are doing it with a deftness and lightness of touch that is a refreshing change from the didactic pretentions of Punchdrunk, and the back-slapping, self-congratulatory air of You Me Bum Bum Train.
Golem announces 1927 arrival as a seriously impressive company. They have paid their dues with a couple of fringe pieces before ‘The Animals and Children Took The Street’ ended up with three runs at the National Theatre. Fast-tracked to the Young Vic and already working with top continental companies, such as Théâtre de la Ville Paris, it is very exciting to see where they go from here.
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