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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

Most theatre companies attempt to create the illusion of reality on stage. They try to produce the effect that the audience is looking through a ‘fourth wall’ onto a three-dimensional setting – be it a room, a street, or indeed the open air. They want us to believe that the actors are moving around a real location.

But not a company like 1927 …


The stage at The Old Market must be ten metres across at least. It was completely filled at the front with a huge screen, illuminated by a powerful video projector – yellow, with primitive black line drawings and graphic images jumping around on it. At the front of the stage, on either side of the screen there were musicians sat playing: a percussionist to the left and a keyboard player to the right – dressed in black, like their instruments, but wearing loose tops in bright scarlet. Scarlet hats too, in a style that reminded me of caps worn by medieval students in some Mitteleuropean city … like Prague, for instance.

Then the musicians moved onto the stage, in front of the screen. Two more actors appeared, and the four became a band – ‘Annie and the Underdogs’. The screen was black now, with the band’s name at the top, and simple red graphics depicting rising rockets with flaming exhausts streaming down below. Like four narrow triangles of scarlet flame, with a band member stood in each red light, becoming part of the overall image filling our field of vision.

Because there was no depth to the stage, we quickly accepted the actors – there were finally five in all – as an integral part of the images on the screen. And what images!

They seemed to inhabit a sleazy area of the city; so crude, garish images of bars and cheap eateries flashed across the screen. Sometimes we watched them pass in front of run-down store fronts, the actor performing the walking action on the spot, in a patch of neutral light surrounding just him, while the crudely rendered street scene scrolled across the screen around him. The illusion was so cleverly realised, and the actors’ movements so accurately synchronised, that we saw the live characters walking or running as an integral part of the cartoon.

And in a cartoon, anything is possible. The screen would suddenly shrink to a small circle of light just enclosing an actor’s head, like a Tom and Jerry sequence, or the whole street scene would tilt suddenly, tipping the actor (it seemed) off balance or sliding down a slope. A sleazy part of town, so we saw the neon signs – EATS … BAR … GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS – along with symbolic icons of bottles or hamburgers, all rendered in vibrant colours. The range of images, and the jumpy pace at which they kept changing, reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s more surreal sequences in ‘Monty Python’.

A masterful fusion of animated graphics and live action. In one scene, a (live) singer in a bar sits leaning forward on a stool, while wisps of (cartoon) smoke curl up the screen from his cigarette. The screen itself had doors and small hatches set flush into its surface, allowing the actors to pass through a (cartoon) door in a building or room, or enable their heads to appear high above the floor. When a central character goes onto a dating agency (patience – we’ll come to that …) he’s centre-screen, surrounded by a huge flashing yellow circle like some demented game show, and flanked by two enormously elongated (cartoon) women – but the women’s heads are real, actors’ faces poking out through the hatches above. Seamless. Shocking. Superb!

Paul Barritt’s amazing animation was perfectly balanced by the faultless synchronisation of Suzanne Andrade’s direction. Andrade and Barritt are founder members of 1927, and their creation, hugely enhanced by Lillian Henley’s weirdly jarring, echoing music, kept us spellbound for ninety minutes. Not that I could have given you any idea of time passing – the huge screen filled our field of view, and the ceaseless cascade of images and sounds left us reeling with sensory overload.

So what did 1927 actually do with all this artistry and technology? What story did they tell?

The Golem is a sixteenth century tale from the Jewish Ghetto in Prague, where a rabbi builds a humanoid figure out of clay, and brings the thing alive by inscribing the Hebrew word for Truth – EMETH – on its forehead. The Golem can be put back to sleep by erasing one character to just leave – METH – Death. Of course, the creature gets out of control and runs amok, causing great destruction.

A central trope of a lot of modern science fiction. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein builds his own creature, which goes off on a rampage, in the book published in 1818. Just over a century later Karel Čapek, who himself lived in Prague, wrote ‘RUR‘ – ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’. A play, about an inventor who creates synthetic humanoid workers (‘Robot’ is the Czech word for ‘Worker’) who, again, get out of control and take over the world. Any number of twentieth century ‘Mad Professors’ create some technology and then can’t control it. It seems to come from our inherent distrust of something new and something that we don’t really understand.

What happens in ‘Golem’ is that Robert, the central character, has a friend called Phil Sylocate, who invents a clay humanoid (with a dick). He calls the thing a Golem, and advertises his business as – ‘PHIL SYLOCATE’S GENUINE GOLEMS’. This is so close to ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ as to leave little doubt as to the idea’s origins. For this reviewer his name also seems very close to ‘Silicate’, the group of compounds that make up the composition of clay. So Mr. Sylocate builds a clay man out of silicates. Neat.

Clever, and thought-provoking, too. Silicate is the oxide of the element silicon, and it’s silicon that is the basis of the semiconductor industry and computers – Silicon Valley. What Phil Sylocate has actually created is a Personal Computer made out of clay – like Steve Jobs building the original Apple PC in his garage. It does the repetitive drudge work for Robert, but pretty soon it learns to do much more to help Robert in his daily life.

And here’s the problem. The Golem learns very quickly: to speak, to read and to absorb contemporary culture, especially the irresistible culture of advertising, and it’s designed – it wants – to make people’s lives better and more fulfilling. Because it’s so useful there are soon many, many more until almost everyone has their own personal Golem. Making their lives ‘better and more fulfilling’.

Golem browbeats Robert into changing his clothing – “The Modern Man should dress to impress”. Robert ends up in a weird jacket and the kind of breeches they wore in ‘Metropolis’, very wide at the thigh – all in vivid yellow. In fact a lot of the interior backgrounds, including the office where Robert works, have the Expressionist style of Fritz Lang or of Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’. He’s wearing this outfit when Golem ‘suggests’ he change his relationship – “The Modern Man can have more than one woman” – and he enters the dating scene I mentioned earlier. And Golem never stops.

The twentieth century produced two outstanding dystopian science fiction novels – ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’. George Orwell predicted that society would be controlled by State violence – “A boot stamping on a human face – forever”, but it was Aldous Huxley’s realisation that we would be more easily enslaved by our every desire being met that seems to have come to pass in consumer culture.

In the twenty-first century consumer culture has fused with the computer, to provide a total, all-embracing, cosseting 24/7 experience, reinforcing all our desires. Evolving in power day by day. And it learns so fast – “Golem just knows what I want before I do” …

Google, anyone?




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