DYSTOPIAN LEAPS WITH ALGORITHMS

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Golem

Sydney Theatre Company, in partnership with 1927.

Rosalyn Packer Theatre

16-26 March 2016

Reviewed by Nathan Lentern

There is a somewhat unmissable irony that a play which warns us of the sinister reach of the digital world, tells its story so effectively thanks to the faultless use of digital animations to complement the live acting. This is Golem, the story of the depressingly boring Robert who spends his life “backing up the binary” until he buys the prototype “Golem”.

Golems are creatures from Jewish folklore. Fashioned out of clay, brought to life and used as slave like figures until the Golem happens upon some independence at which point chaos invariably ensues. In Golem, Robert’s prize purchase follows the trajectory of Google and Facebook algorithms, guzzling up data about his ostensible owner’s preferences and behavioural patterns, subtly manoeuvring him into purchasing that which he would otherwise never had considered.

Slowly but surely the influence of his Golem becomes more and more omnipresent. Golems are manufactured en masse and quickly make the jump from a luxury to a necessity. Eventually we are left with a population that has been completely hollowed out. Their individuality is completely cannibalised by their “servants” as they do exactly what the Golem tells them to do, simultaneously believing that they are still in control. It’s the sort of plot that makes you want to hurl your smart phone out the window on the journey home.

In Golem the cutting edge, avant garde theatre group 1927 joins forces with the Sydney Theatre Company to bring us a production that is both ambitious yet deftly executed. With an animated projection for a set with immaculately timed music and choreography to compliment it, Golem exudes a chillingly dystopic vibe.

Enormous credit here must go to composer Lillian Henley whose haunting scores are what bridges the gap between bleak and genuinely upsetting. The characters (sans Golem) are essentially different facets of the same entity. A dull, unexcited and unimpressive group. They are all severely lacking in imagination or ambition and instead lead lives of unthreatening yet stifling monotony – making them vulnerable prey for Golem.

As such the cast members:  Will Close, Esme Appleton, Henley, Rose Robinson and Shamira Turner all act and speak with similarly dry and bland mannerisms and a uniform deadpan tone. Their dialogue on the other hand is wickedly sardonic – perfect for a depressing tale of dystopia like Golem.

It isn’t particularly hard to anticipate the plot trajectory of Golem. From a very early moment, director Suzanne Andrade tips her hand and reveals where we’re going, yet somehow this is okay. We despair for our protagonists fairly early on, but we don’t know how bad it will get. This is enough to keep us in a degree of suspense and we are rewarded, or perhaps punished, with a suitably imaginative way to plunge a new depth of despair in the closing salvo.

Dystopic tales of the algorithms telling a tragically depressed population that they have everything they want are hardly new, but with well-honed dialogue, convincing acting and positively frightening aesthetics the final product can still send chills down the audience’s spines.

Nathan Lentern is a writer and performer.