Ever get sick of people staring into their mobile phone screens? So are the 1927 theatre company. They’ve made a play about it.
Except ‘play’ isn’t the right word. It suggests something predictable, actors engaged in dialogue against a flat background. Golem is an immersive, dynamic experience: a live band, including piano and drums, provides the soundtrack in-situ, giving the play a relentless, driving energy.
Distinctive, dreamlike animation brings the mise-en-scene vividly to life, lending the characters an additional layer with which to interact. A pre-recorded narrative, pausing for the timely interruptions of the cast, brings additional dimension and thrust.
It all adds up to a breathless, fascinating production, which at ninety minutes felt too short. I wanted more. It helps that the premise feels pressing and topical. Robert, a socially stunted ‘geek’, buys a prototype of a clay robot called Golem, an invention designed to help its owner with the menial chores of life, but which, through the help of pernicious ‘updates’ and an unsettlingly familiar complacency, comes to exert a malign influence over Robert and his family. Technology belittles them.
Regardless of the premise, it is the skilful execution of Golem and its unique aesthetic which elevate it to something truly original. Ostensibly set in the present day, the world of Golem is a curious melange of a Britain long past – music halls, flappers, post-war austerity – with a more recent world of punk and post-modernism reminiscent of Clockwork Orange. In its entirety, this blend of past and present situates the play in an uncanny alternate-universe Britain, recognisably our own country but distorted as though in a carnival mirror. It’s effective: a lecture on technology set in the gritty realism of contemporary London would have run the risk of sermonising. Instead, the odd vision of a distorted town caught halfway between the industrial revolution and modernity provides an excellent backdrop for an engaging discussion about the purpose of technology.
This comic-book distortion extends to the script. Golem is deliberately, horribly funny. Each character puts their own inflection on a common, nasal drawl, contributing to a lop-sided and tuneless symphony of geeks, freaks and crooks, all of them winning our attention. Coupled with a satirical, endearingly exaggerated acting style, Golem’s cast successfully carry the audience into their weird, warped little world. Suddenly you want to see what the restaurants would look like, the schools, the shops.
Golem is narrated by Robert’s sister, Annie, another social outcast but blessed with the kind of emotional awareness that makes her an excellent observer of a baffling world. She’s the lead singer of Annie & the Underdogs, a sorry outfit whose screaming promise to ‘ruin your Christmas’ provokes only laughter, their anarchist sloganeering giving way to pity. Their practice sessions punctuate the play, snarling and explosive but also tragic and deflating. When Annie sadly informs us that they’ve never performed live, you almost feel a sense of relief.
The prominence of the band in the production emphasises its unusual reliance on music, and as such it’s disappointing that Golem’s musical numbers are letdowns. With so much room for rhythm, the songs should make more of an impact, carry more of the play’s message, or at the very least be a little catchier. Instead, the musical numbers are out of time and repetitive, with the exception of the song that accompanies Robert’s bizarre foray into the dating world (riffing on Tinder with good effect). Still, the cast are lively and enthusiastic in their singing; it feels like an opportunity missed rather than a clanger
Outside of the band, Annie and Robert live with their Grandmother, who manages the unlikely double of fastidious old-fashioned matron and untamed former punk-rocker in a single character. Frustrated by his inability to court awkward, drab new-girl Joy at work, Robert treats himself to a new gadget: Golem. Slowly, the obedient clay man – whose animated form is projected onto the backdrop and with whom the cast interact flawlessly – becomes more unsettlingly human with each update, convincing Robert and his grandmother that they are in control as he slowly exerts his influence over their lives. Initially this amounts to little more than persuading them to buy flashy products they don’t need, before becoming more and more manipulative.
Golem is, quite brilliantly, a veiled metaphor for the iPhone. By making his owners’ lives more convenient, they come to rely on him with more and more of their personal decisions. And, by acting as the conduit through which they receive their information, Golem wields great influence over their lives. Robert’s clothes, speech, and life decisions are swayed by Golem’s opinions. As we watch Robert, convinced of his increasing authority and freedom, become a clone of his Golem, we are uncomfortably reminded of the influence new technologies have over our own lives. If we use our smartphones for everything, from deciding who to date to satellite navigation, how much autonomy are we outsourcing from our lives to a machine? We think the smartphone is ours, and yet it updates and renews itself without our permission.
With a sharp eye for the grotesque postures into which technology bends us, Golem tackles the kinds of very modern taboos at the forefront of contemporary life. If it’s rude to stare at a smartphone while in the company of others, it can sometimes feel just as rude to point this out, leaving us in an awkward position. Productions with the courage to tackle such issues deserve applause, especially when they manage it without sacrificing entertainment value.
Wickedly funny, acutely observed and consistently challenging, Golem is the kind of play that forges a groove for itself in your memory. Its distinctive style, calling to mind influences as disparate as Monty Python and Fritz Lang Metropolis, makes it an instant winner, weaving a world strangely remote and eerily familiar. Against this backdrop, the warnings of a future overly dominated by technology feel even starker, and there are points during the play where the message is too heavy-handed. Given that Golem becomes so popular he takes over the world, it would have been useful to devote less time to the interludes of Robert running on the spot as the animated background shifted, and more time to the implied social upheaval or the development of the characters besides Robert. Still, it’s a beguiling and enjoyable vision of a world driven mad by its own cleverness, and a welcome insight into our own.
Golem – the 1927 production is showing at the Trafalgar Studios London SW1A www.youngvic.org
words Chris Zacharia