Many people of a certain age will remember the suburban wonders of a living-room slideshow. It was cinema you could do yourself with the lights out, curtains pulled, and head-cut-off holiday portraits beamed against the woodchipped wall. Little did we kids know, as we stood in front of the projector for a laugh and enjoyed the sensation of the photos being printed across our clothes and skin, that we were foretelling the work of the groundbreaking theatre company, 1927.
This is a company that mixes projection and performance as liberally as our suburban parents of yesteryear mixed man-made fabrics. That is to say, they do it a lot, though with more aesthetically pleasing results. Three years ago, their ambitious animation-and-acting show Golem debuted at the Salzburg Festival, and after playing all over the world, its latest UK tour has made its way to Liverpool Playhouse.
Golem is a fascinating show. It is essentially a 90-minute animated film enhanced by the seamless interaction of a number of human performers, but while this description conveys the cold, hard facts, it doesn’t come close to communicating the wit and magic of the experience.
If the show’s first few minutes feel a little rigidly cinematic, in that there is a sneaking feeling that we’re just watching a big DVD, it doesn’t take long to pick up the production’s peculiar language. I’m sure there must be a technical term for the way the video elements and the performers blend together – this is a world in which real-life actors can walk along hand-drawn streets or hold hands with models made of clay – but to me, it’s simply known as “clever shit”. And that’s a quote they can put on the posters if they want.
Written and directed by Suzanne Andrade, Golem is a cautionary fable that satirises today’s lust for novelty along with consumerism’s insatiable desires. The ‘golem’ of the title (the word comes from Jewish folklore) is a Morph-like Plasticine figure that comes to life and, through its absorption of the world’s ubiquitous advertising messages, manages to transform a boy called Robert Robertson from beige-clad uber-nerd into a marketing department’s fashion-loving dream.
Robert’s family and friends are all twisted and tainted by his metamorphosis under the golem’s charismatic spell, from his stuck-in-her-ways gran who suddenly finds herself unable to resist a brand-new Knit-O-Matic machine, to his socially awkward sweetheart Joy who finds herself in competition with not one, but two body-confident trophy girlfriends.
As social commentary, Golem is hardly more sophisticated than sixth-form philosophising, but then you might say the same about some of the 1930s German photomontages whose influence can be felt here. For instance, chunks of Golem remind me of the work of John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, artists who combined photographs from print media to create angry polemical images that spat in the face of the Establishment. There are echoes of both in this show, and it remains the case that simple messages can make for memorable and startling images.
But although Golem’s warnings about technology and control undoubtedly have a propagandist edge, the show’s range of influences is far wider than that. Paul Barritt, 1927’s animator and illustrator, has created a visual world whose moods chop and change in moments, switching from hard-edged expressionism to moments of deep magic-lantern enchantment, from Jan Svankmajer-esque surrealism to scenes that are very Wallace & Gromit.
Two on-stage musicians soundtrack the piece, a drummer and a pianist who both also take part as actors. As with the integration of live performance with film, the synchronising of music with the other elements is dazzlingly successful, in as much as it simply happens without ever revealing the join. While the individual songs are witty but not particularly memorable, the piano-led, Satie-scented score provides a beautiful silent-cinema-type accompaniment.
Golem is technically breathtaking, quirky and fun, a strange but captivating amalgam of artforms that aren’t commonly seen together. While I and my sister may have invented the form when we stood in front of a slide projector 40 years ago and pretended we were on an Anglesey beach, I have to hand it to 1927. What they can do with a few actors and a cartoon is incredible.
Or to be technical about it, it’s clever shit.
By Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
Golem is at Liverpool Playhouse until October 21, 2017. For more info, visit the website.