A Golem Story: here’s mud in your eye

a golem story theatre poster

A Golem Story is playing at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne’s Southbank district, and what a grand theatre it is. The Malthouse is a reconditioned industrial building, dating to 1892, with a sensitive touch given to that history. So lots of exposed beams and raw brick and a mezzanine level giving access to one of the theatres. And a long bar (as you’d expect from a former brewery), and a separate coffee counter with scrumptious desserts. And a separate restaurant, which I haven’t sampled. There’s even a typically Melbourne laneway area for those who want to take the air, or pollute it with their noxious nicotine habit. There’s even a wee bookshop with titles theatrical and dramatic.

Golem was staged in one of the downstairs theatres — there are three in total — and the set was spectacular. With seats ranged around three sides of the central stage, the rear wall of slatted timber was fronted by a grid sporting candles. The central stage was a rough timber floor which could be lifted away to reveal a mud hole — just what you need for making a golem.

The play is set, for the most part, inside a synagogue in Prague where the authorities are responding to the disappearance of some children by threatening a purge of the scapegoat Jewish ghetto. The opening scene has a young woman prone under a low-hanging candelabrum that is to die for. It gets cranked up and down by a winch at the back of the stage: it clunks most atmospherically and is one of the few physical props used in the play. At times, light beams through the rear wall to make criss-cross patterns on the floor; a spotlight weaves to show the golem’s location but it is left to the audience to fill in the details of the creature, created by the Rabbi to defend his people.

The aforementioned young lady is the centre of the piece; a rather mysterious woman employed as the maid who has undergone a severe trauma at the hands of one of the Rabbi’s former students who has shuffled off his mortal coil. There is magic and intrigue, and lots of discussion about humankind’s right to create life in the shape of itself a la God, and humour from an almost farcical emperor who is more dangerous than his camp demeanour might suggest. And of course there’s the faithful of the synagogue, primarily the driven Rabbi and his diffident, doubting student.

One of the most striking elements of the play is the music: male choir, at times joined by the young woman (the only female actor), and one over-long solo as actors scramble up ladders to light that impressive wall of candles though the lag — at least for those of us who can’t appreciate the drama of the song due to it being sung in, presumably, Yiddish — perhaps isn’t quite justified by the eventual effect.

The story itself is engaging, thanks to the power of the actors and their splendid singing voices, though there’s a wee logic bounce that, well, despite the explanation, kind of sticks in my throat in much the same way as a stone tablet inscribed with the secret name of God sticks in the mouth of a golem: we both find it hard to swallow. I can’t say more about that because it would ruin the attempted twist in the tale, though really, the twist is not that unexpected. Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter to the overall impact of the story.

Golems rule, okay?