Review: Golem at Liverpool Playhouse

Credit: Bernhard Mueller

By Nigel Smith

THIS work by 1927 Theatre Company is indeed based on the clay man Golem of Jewish folklore. What they have done with it, however, almost defies description.

There’s an air of mystery surrounding the company – they don’t provide any form of programme for a start, and there is something distinctly other-worldly about the performance. Could it be any coincidence that 1927 was the year Fritz Lang released his expressionist film Metropolis? And this was only 7 years after the word Robot was first used in the way we understand it today – effectively to describe an artificial human.

Since initial development in 2014 the play itself has evolved into what we see today, and is a co-production from 1927, Salzburg Festival, Théâtre de la Ville Paris and the Young Vic. A small group of performers, some of whom are also instrumentalists, work on an almost empty stage. Onto a flat, white backdrop and a handful of small movable screens are projected a combination of backgrounds, scenery, props and other characters, in a complex and highly stylised piece of animation. Astonishingly all this is projected onto the stage by a single, tremendously powerful projector, mounted up in the theatre’s gallery.

The stage is in total darkness with the only light coming from this front projection, which also effectively includes ‘spotlights’ for the performers, who for the most part have to make their entrances, exits and moves with little or no light to help them.

The animation and live action are blended so seamlessly and the costumes so off the wall that it soon becomes quite tricky to discern the boundary between what’s real and what isn’t.

Young Robert (Philippa Hambley) creates the Golem – or, rather, three of them – to do all the tedious tasks in life, but he’s not going to make a fortune producing them by hand. Soon there is mass production, followed by the Golem 2, a smaller more intuitive Golem, that before long seems to be taking over the world.

I’m not going to bore you with the parallels in modern technology as the message is there as clear as day. There is, however, a great deal of wit in the delivery, despite the slightly frightening reminder that machines designed to be our servants can very quickly become our masters.

The closing passages of the story in which Golem 3 appears on the scene are grimly prophetic, but despatched with such speed that it feels almost as though the writers have thrown away one of the weightiest parts of their tale.

The magic of the presentation is what keeps our eyes glued to the stage. Pinpoint precision in the placement and timing of the actors, despite the challenges of doing it with only a single light source, make for some astonishing visual trickery. Watch for the ‘virtual’ smoke coming from a ‘real’ cigarette and tell me how it’s done with this accuracy…

The combination of continuous motion and animated graphics become quite mesmerising, and after a while you are left feeling as though you’re falling into a semi trance-like state. When it all ends and the lights go up, you’ll find yourself rubbing your eyes to reacclimatise to reality.

Golem is at The Playhouse until Saturday.