Annie (played by Esme Appleton), Robert (Shamira Turner), Golem and Granny (Rose Robinson) Photo Will Sanders

Challenging uniformity in life and on stage.

Golem1927 @ 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 golem_new_326x326inanimate 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’s 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 in 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 Esme.Appleton.in_.1927.s.Golem_.at_.the_.Young_.Vic_.9.Dec_.2014..17.Jan_.2015..Photo_.by_.Bernhard.M.ller_.2of 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.

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Shakespeare’s Cymbeline finally turned into a true work of art

Cymbeline – Barbican Theatre

The Ninagawa Company, under the stewardship of Yukio Ninagawa, has built up a fearsome reputation in world theatre. They stand as the equal of any post-war company from Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop through to Chicago’s Steppenwolf, whilst stylistically they are as uniquely identifiable as anything from Peter Brook or Simon McBurney.

Famed for his Shakespeare, Yukio Ninagawa has turned his attention to one of the most problematic plays in the Bard’s canon; Cymbeline. It is a difficult play to love and one that comes packaged with all kinds of traps for a modern audience. The plot winds and winds and seems unsure of what it wants to be, containing elements of romance, farce and tragedy. It has simplistic plot devices, like cross-dressing and misidentification, reminiscent of earlier plays but also contains the heavily allegorical language and non-human elements, in this case Jupiter descending on an eagle, that place it alongside The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest as one of the later plays.

Frank Kermode described the play as a tragi-comic romance and suggests that it may have been an in-joke for audiences who would have had a much better understanding of the text and references to earlier plays. None of which makes it any easier for a modern audience to unpick the complexities of the plot.

Luckily going to see a Ninagawa production is to have your visual senses wrapped in cotton wool and taken on a journey where the simplicity of images masks the masterful craftsmanship working behind the scenes. The technical understanding of balance is superbly illustrated again and again throughout the evening; light and shade, simplicity and complexity, the tonality is in harmony so that everything works towards the whole and the audience is never aware of the mechanics. Like other Japanese traditions that have bewitched Europeans over the years, from woodcuts to sushi, the skill rests on the ability to hide an incredible complexity behind a deceptively simple front.

It is difficult to fairly assess the skill of the actors without speaking Japanese and since the production leans so heavily on the visual, the rest of this review will take a radical detour and will look to provide a sense of the evening through the images it has left behind.

You can choose any one of a number of plot strands to call the centre of Cymbeline. Above we see the romance at the heart of the play, that of Posthumus and Imogen, as they are parted and again as they are reunited. As is traditional in Shakespeare the lovers must face many barriers before finally winning through in the end. However the play is made problematic, particularly to a modern audience, by the fact that Posthumus acts in such an unreasonable manner for much of the play, doubting his wife’s fidelity almost as soon as he leaves England before hiring his servant to murder her. That kind of level of trust does not always lead to happy relationships.

As the beating heart of the play, Hiroshi Abe, as the exiled Posthumus, and Shinobu Otake’s Imogen, bring the romance to life despite spending most of the play separated. They draw out the character traits despite the language barrier, with Hiroshi embodying the stoic and duty-bound Posthumus,  accepting of the State’s decision to banish him before later preparing to sacrifice himself in realisation at the fate he believes he inflicted on Imogen.

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