It’s easier, as the popular phrase has it, to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. Perhaps the same now goes for the little glowing rectangles permanently glued to our palms, feeding us an endless diet of information and advertising. The one, of course, is wrapped up with the other, as technology binds us ever more tightly to the corporations that invisibly run our lives: promoted tweets, personalised ads, one-click shopping. All the choice in the world, as long as you don’t want an alternative.
1927’s previous show, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, was eerily prescient in its anticipation of the 2011 riots. Golem is more responsive than it is prophetic, amplifying an experience of 21st-century living that is – despite the cartoonish cladding – instantly familiar. Instead of iPhones, 1927’s characters have the eponymous golems: clay men designed to do the bidding of their masters. But as with the similarly “time-saving” devices that our lives revolve around, the golems (and the ubiquitous corporation that promptly snaps up the invention) quickly begin to make silent demands of their own.
Ironically, the show itself is founded on the same technology that it regards with suspicion. The stage of the Young Vic is filled with nothing but screens and bodies, which meet seamlessly thanks to the witty detail of Paul Barritt’s projections and the precision of the performances. Awkward nerd Robert – demanding the full, gawky array of Shamira (Little Bulb) Turner’s elastic facial expressions – strides through animated cityscapes, seeming almost to dissolve into the busy backdrop of fast food joints and strip clubs. This is an every-city, a place of crumbling estates, boarded up shops and townhouses owned by absent billionaires.
Robert is, as his narrating sister Annie informs us, a nobody. He was bullied at school, he’s never had a girlfriend and he spends nine to five “backing up the back-up”, drearily pencilling 0s and 1s into ledgers. For fun, he plays in Annie’s band: a ragtag collection of thwarted punk rockers, who would be changing the world if it weren’t for their chronic stage fright. Even the way he stands, shoulders rounded against the world, is unassuming.
Then Robert buys a golem, the latest invention from his would-be entrepreneur friend. The clay man created to serve is borrowed from Jewish folklore, but 1927 are more interested in his 21st-century descendants. Golem doesn’t just cook and clean; he saves money by doing the food shopping online and helpfully suggests which new shoes to buy. Egged on by his new companion, Robert bags himself a promotion and overhauls his image. He’s no longer a nobody, but an everybody. And despite his supposed servility, it is soon the golem who begins to look like master, as Robert and his family fall under the influence of this wonky clay automaton and later his shiny, updated replacement (Golem 2.0).
This is storybook satire: bold, colourful, but not necessarily subtle. 1927’s targets – global corporations, political apathy, freedom sapping technology – loom large and unmissable, with a few potshots at the Daily Mail and anti-immigration rhetoric chucked in for good measure. There are even mentions for Boris Johnson and Benedict Cumberbatch (Robert’s golem is, hilariously, rather taken with the latter).
But if its message is as blunt as the advertising crowding the edges of our screens, Golem gets away with it by dint of sheer ingenuity. There is still something inexplicably joyful about the way in which bodies and images merge on stage, putting to shame the clunky projection seen in so many other shows. It’s the detail, though, that really makes it. From a portrait brought delightfully to life, to Robert’s deliciously Kafka-esque occupation, to a brilliant (and brilliantly observed) sequence on internet dating, nothing is wasted. And when the garish yellow branding of the golems begins to take over, it’s the small and silly quirks that we miss, be they wacky hairdos or idiosyncratic punk lyrics. No golem – or iPhone – can substitute for those.
Photo: Bernhard Müller.