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A play with too much style

In “Golem” the aesthetic overrules the drama

Isabel Lloyd | April 23rd 2015

The theatre company 1927 is unlike many others. They barely ever use any set—just a flat backdrop with a window and a door cut into it—and the actors spend much of their time standing still, or walking on the spot. The stage pictures they create with lighting and animation have the flickering, tableau vivant quality of early cinema: their actors wear the dark, hollowed eye make-up of silent-film stars, and even their name is a reference to screens, as 1927 is the year the talkies began. But despite the element of two-dimensionality, the performance poet Suzanne Andrade and the designer Paul Barritt make plays that encapsulate a complete world. Since 2007, when their debut show “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” was a standout hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s a world that has gathered a young, growing and devoted following.

Their newest play is “Golem”, which has just opened in the West End after successful runs at the Young Vic and the Salzburg Festival. Like all 1927’s shows, it cleverly synchronises cartoonish live action with huge projections of Barritt’s hand-drawn animations, to tell a story that is half modern gothic, half old-fashioned fairy tale. Here the Golem figure of Jewish fable is not an uncontrollable id running riot, but an initially charming combination of Google, Android and iPhone made Claymation flesh, which with every upgrade slowly takes over the worlds, minds and individuality of the humans who use it.

But like the Golem itself, the show’s appeal fades as it progresses. 1927 are completely committed to their own aesthetic, to the extent that they let it overrule basic dramatic needs. At first the originality of their vision is enough to draw you in, with its consciously artless animations, Georges Méliès-style costumes, and frequent flashes of comedy with a debt to the Mighty Boosh (not least a penchant for stack-heeled boots). The actors are all excellent, powerful mimes who use their whole bodies to sharply characterise and tell their stories. But every scene ends with a slow iris fade to black, which, while fitting with the age-of-innocence, silent-movie look of the thing, prevents any build up of momentum. Narrative energy constantly drains away.

A mix of live and recorded music occasionally develops into songs, which help pick up the pace. But only two are properly successful, and for different reasons. One is a playful, clever, Sondheim-esque duet—“I love animals, all animals”—between two women on a dating website. The other is a high-squealing spoof of an idealistic electro-punk band: imagine Siouxsie Sioux, backed by Devo. And while Andrade’s verse is often funny, and occasionally moving, the plot suffers from predictability: there is no point at which you suspect that the Golem/modern technology might be a good thing. The result is one of those shows where, after about half an hour, you are simply waiting—not unenjoyably, but nonetheless just waiting—for it to end. While I applaud their originality, 1927 need to concentrate less on their style and more on their content. To be, ironically, more like everybody else.

Golem Trafalgar Studios, London, to 22 May

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