★★★★☆ A mix of sardonic wit and visual spectacle that tells a contemporary story with retro charm.

Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide
March 9, 2016

We may be a civilisation that embraces the latest mod-cons, but man has long suspected the potential machinations of advanced technology. From Skynet to the Matrix and Kubrick’s sinisterly genial Hal, science-fiction has repeatedly predicted a grim science-future, usually culminating in the human race being annihilated by the very machines created to serve us. But perhaps the tech apocalypse is a more insidious foe: if Golem, by British theatre-firebrands 1927, is anything to go by, the enslavement of the human race is already well underway.

Co-opting the Jewish fable of the Golem – a giant clay man, brought to life to serve its human master – this production tells the story of Robert Robertson, a dorky, dull but gentle chap. Set in a simpler time, when people used pencils and ate aspic jelly with corned beef, Robert and his family lead a basic, no-frills existence. However, Robert’s bland life is suddenly transformed when he purchases a Golem from an old school chum of a similarly geeky ilk. Despite the immediate advantages having the Golem offers, soon the convenience brought to his life by this must-have wonder product begins to sap away his individuality. As his personality and appearance are warped beyond recognition, the same complicit transformation starts to effect everyone around him. Slowly the seductive pull of mass-conformity takes hold of the populous; after all, as this production so astutely asks, “Do you want to be a nobody or an everybody?”

This Australian debut is already extremely well-credentialed – in the two years since Golem premiered it has earned a slew of five-star ratings and incandescent reviews, and indeed, the hype is well deserved. Described by 1927 as “filmic theatre”, this company’s unique speciality, layering eccentric, highly stylised live performances in perfect concert with vividly realised projected animations, is an entrancing combination. Underpinned by Lillian Henley’s itinerant, fully-integrated score, which propels the canter of the dialogue forward with its cartoonish, vintage swing, the nimble pace and fluency of this production is fine-tuned to the second. 

The cutting-edge technical sophistication of this show is incredibly accomplished, but the aesthetic of its design draws on a more old-fashioned palette. Mixing hand-drawn animation, retro collages and Claymation, all by 1927 founder Paul Barritt, Golem conjures up a dystopian vista pitched somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Monty Python. There’s a pervasive bleakness shot through with an unselfconscious silliness, for example, the mischievous insects that draw a caterpillar moustache on an old portrait, or the ample but impotent penis that hangs pendulously between the Golem’s legs. This uniquely British variety of sardonic wit adds another level of dry, yester-year charm, but this apparently ramshackle veneer hides a millimetre-perfect choreography that syncs so microscopically to the huge projections that it almost defies belief. Spectacle aside, it’s this show’s incredible attention to detail that really sells it, and this stops Golem’s innate dependence on projection becoming mere gimmickry. 

There’s no denying the finesse of its execution, but that’s not to say this production is entirely flawless. The narrative is clever, even ingenius at times, but also incredibly insistent and a tad predictable. Using the Golem as a metaphor for the ubiquitous mobile phone, it’s easy to identify with this show’s observations about our contemporary inability to survive without the affirmation and reassurance of a superficial, cookie-cutter lifestyle. However the strong connection it makes to B-Movie horror never feels fully explored. Moreover, Golem is not so much a cautionary tale as it is a fait accompli – there’s no need for a warning when the future is already here. 

The Adelaide Festival presents 1927’s Golem, at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, until March 13.


The production tours to Sydney, presented by the Sydney Theatre Company, March 16 – 26.