Technology is a fickle friend to theatre. Few sounds bring more trepidation than the whirr of a projector heating up, few sets are made more exciting by the presence of an optimistic blank screen. For every show that has been elevated to a new height of brilliance by video design, there are dozens that have been fatally wounded, their visual imaginations stripped down and encoded into pixels and the live-ness of their performances reduced to a kind of synchronised swimming against a blurred low definition backdrop.
It was against this theatrical landscape that 1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets exploded. For once the projections were as witty as the script, the cast’s physical performances moving in a perfect waltz with the technology, which itself blended home-spun and hi-tech into a delicious confection.
The same banks of rendering software and colossal projector have been fired up for Golem, but three years on what once was wondrous has become a little more everyday, and a mundane and obvious script leaves the much-loved company looking stranded.
The world of Golem is instantly recognisable, that same blend of Tim Burton and Sylvain Chomet which animated Animals, here giving life to a sort of faceless post-Soviet cityscape. It’s here that geeky Robert (Little Bulb’s Shamira Turner) lives with oddball family, working in a tedious ‘binary back-up of the back up’ office and spending his spare cash on a series of useless inventions. When his favourite shop begins selling time-saving clay companions, Robert is quick to snap one up, but its impact on his life turns out to be far from positive.
There’s plenty of charm in the theme, and Paul Barritt’s animation never disappoints, but once the shallowness of its satire becomes apparent, which is drastically early in its bloated ninety-minute running time, there’s nowhere else for it to go. Essentially the Golem is a stand-in for our increasing preoccupation with technology, but it’s an extremely blunt tool for satire. Its pudgy clay fists take swipes at iPhones, online dating, corporate monopolies, vanity, garish shoes. Anything and everything, really. In the novel by Gustav Meyrink that this production is ostensibly based on the Golem becomes a composite symbol of all the sufferings of a ghettoised people, here it’s basically a straw man for a bunch of tepid technophobic rants.
There are some brilliant moments, fortunately, and though Suzanne Andrade’s script spreads its satire far too thin, it contains a few superb set-pieces. The dating sequence is a treat, showcasing their trademark crimping which gets much less stage-time here than it deserves. The story of Robert’s sister’s gloriously futile anarcho-punk band is also brilliantly told, and his romance with the stationary administrator provides some much-needed heart.
There’s also a greater texture to the visuals than has been seen before, as they mash up Claymation, paper-cut outs and illustration to create a rich and varied stream of backdrops and locations. There’s probably a fraction too much running back and forth, but the streets are so packed with witty punning shop signs and peculiar apparitions that you’re unlikely to be bored. The extensive use of bright yellow typography is less successful, however, suggesting a sort of Satire for Dummies aesthetic or the nightmare of an Oompa Loompa with totalitarian tendencies.
It’s hard to shake the suspicion that the real danger of technology is how quickly it dates, and that this rule applies to the visual whizzery of 1927 as it does to everything else. What once was extraordinary is now just ordinary, and their work must live or die on more traditional values such as the imagination of its writing and the cunning of its construction. Since they last took to the streets, companies such as Kill the Beast have run a smash and grab on their aesthetic and turned out work that’s funnier, cleverer and more engaging than this.
The irony of a show as reliant on technology as this railing against its masters is surely not lost on 1927, but for all of its prettiness and clever-clever, their lumbering Golem is critically behind the times.