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I’ll be honest: I was hoping I’d be able to make some kind of clever connection between theatre company 1927’s Golem, now at Trafalgar Studios via the Young Vic, and the spate of The Merchant of Venice productions being performed this year, including the one I saw at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre the following night. The original golem, after all, was a creature of Jewish folklore, built out of clay in order, in its most famous version, to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. Shylock could have used a golem.
The titular creature in 1927’s play is a more recognizable beast— if not in his humanoid shape, then in his function as an ever-present personal assistant who seems to know what you want, as one character notes, even before you do. Indeed, it would not be wrong to look at the play’s high-tech aesthetic and think that perhaps it is more than just unrelated to Shakespeare, it is the anti-Shakespeare, a play that is inescapably contemporary in its views, its style, and its reach.
So what is Golem? This is the question on everyone’s lips (“everyone” in this case is played by a cast of five tremendously skilled and versatile actors) when nerdy outcast Robert Robertson (Shamira Turner) comes home one day with his boy genius friend’s latest invention: the Golem. Set in front of a constantly-moving animated backdrop, an engrossingly weird combination of highly stylized, silent film-esque movement and occasionally rhymed, rhythmic patter combine to tell the story of how the Golem not-so-subtly transforms from controlled to controller. As animator and co-founder Paul Barritt explains in the program, the strongest literal element of Gustav Meyrink’s book The Golem that they hoped to retain in the play was the book’s social commentary, and this comes through loud and clear, its directness not at all diminishing its impact.
But I found myself most drawn to a different resonance between the play and its source. Meyrink’s Golem is as much metaphorical as literal, but in both his book and the legends that inspired it, the Golem is a creature borne of fear. Golem depicts a cast of completely endearing losers, people at the very farthest-flung margins of even the most generous person’s idea of “cool”. They are people who are too cripplingly shy or neurotic to ever express their feelings, so even in the groups they form (an office outing, a hilarious anarchist punk bank), they are always alone.
Heavily stylized speech and movement can render characters completely shallow, sometimes by design: French theorist Henri Bergson wrote about the “momentary anesthesia of the heart”, his belief that comedy demanded suspending your empathy for characters in order to laugh at them. But the cartoonishness of these characters, with white-painted faces and exaggerated features, combined with their outcast status, draws us in close even as we laugh. Turner lovingly depicts Robert’s innocent, baffled curiosity at the prospect of, for once in his life, being like everybody else. The whole cast is adept at letting the characters’ touching insecurity shine through their weirdness, though Rose Robinson deserves special mention in her dual roles as Robert’s would-be girlfriend and also his grandmother, whose insecurities about aging are exploited by the Golem in a way that feels particularly insightful and fresh. Allowing the audience to feel true empathy also allows the Golem’s increasingly ludicrously direct sales pitches to seem convincing, building in intensity until they culminate in the most chilling promise of all, to lure in the iconoclasts like Robert’s sister Annie (Charlotte Dubery): we need people like you.
So Robert’s Golem is also borne of fear; not fear of physical attack, perhaps, but a more modern fear of feeling left out and left behind, wishing someone would just let you in on the secret codes of success and popularity that other people seem to instinctively understand. The Golem is happy to be that someone. So maybe it’s not as far from The Merchant of Venice as it seems at first glance: both are plays about difference, after all, and the lengths to which people will go to neutralize it, whether in others or in ourselves. On the other hand, perhaps it’s just silly to compare Shakespeare, almost literally the definition of theatrical tradition, to something as determined as Golem to shake up the distinctions between live theatre and other forms of narrative art.
Of course, the other venerable old lady who is afraid of being forgotten, left behind, or superseded is the theatre itself. I was surprised, given the rapturous responses hailing Golem as “the future of theatre” (and obviously these responses are not 1927’s doing) that “the future of theatre” involves partially turning a play into film. It reminded me of people who discuss Sleep No More and other interactive, site-specific works as being “like a video game”, or a theatre in my hometown that is setting up a serialized short play project and let the audience vote on various options in a weekend of performances they billed as “Pilot Season”. If we want to save the theatre, this seems to imply, we’d better try and disguise it as something else.
The most successful iterations of this trend (of which Golem is an example) use these gestures towards other forms to draw attention back to their own essential liveness. And in some ways, that is the story of Golem in a nutshell. Certain things— experiences, relationships— simply require what becomes, in 1927’s world, the most frightening task of all: reaching out to, opening yourself to, even just sitting next to another living person. The theatre demands all of these. My friend confessed that she spent entire scenes of Golem just trying to hold in her laughter because the rest of the audience was silent; the next night, I spent Shylock’s trial scene glaring at a woman who wouldn’t stop laughing. Maybe that’s the fundamental terror that the Golem promises to prevent, that the experience of live theatregoing itself forces us to confront: looking at another person and realizing that you are not the same.
Golem continues at Trafalgar Studios until May 22.