Review: The Zombie State ~ theatre notes

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Review: The Zombie State

The Zombie State by Ben Ellis, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and costumes designed by Kate Davis, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti and Danny Pettingill, sound design by Darrin Verhagen. Melbourne Workers Theatre and Union House Theatre @ the Union Theatre, Melbourne University, until September 27.

For all my enthusiasm for popular culture, I am not hugely au fait with the genre of horror films. I can cope with the arty, Henry Jamesian end of things, but hard-core schlock horror has far too powerful an effect for me to watch it with any kind of pleasure. One of my more embarrassing moments, back in the days when I was a wage-slave journalist, was being sent to write my one and only film review for the now defunct tabloid shocker, The Sunday Press.

In those pre-DVD days, the half-dozen or so Melbourne crrritics were assembled in a mini-theatre at Hoyts for the preview. The film happened to be a remake of the old classic The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum. I'm surprised I remember anything about it: I spent a lot of time with my hands over my eyes, moaning "you mean, people pay to watch this stuff?", while the hardened hacks regarded me with deep perplexity. In a mini-cinema, everyone can hear you scream.

That was, quite rightly, the end of my film reviewing career. Since then, the only time I've dared to watch horror films is on the back of plane seats, where the screen is six inches wide and I can switch to a deeply unfunny Gwyneth Paltrow comedy when the music begins the shrill violin thing which means that the wide-eyed woman who is creeping down a dark hallway in her nightdress is about to die horribly with the maximum amount of splat.

And so it is that I've never watched a zombie film (well, not all the way through, anyway), which means that there are aspects of The Zombie State that are lost on me. For all that, it's not difficult to see the subversive possibilities of zomboid metaphors in critiquing contemporary society. The dehumanising power of corporatism seen through automonic workers was first explored in Karel ńĆapek's 1921 SF play Rossum's Universal Robots, and has been a hardy theme through radical 20th century writing. And it's a cue Ben Ellis and Daniel Schlusser have picked up with enthusiasm.

The Zombie State, which has been developed under the aegis of the Melbourne Workers Theatre, is maybe the first play to have a go at the clean, mean team of Kevin '07: the impeccably coiffured, business-friendly "third way" socialism you have when the Left as a governmental force as shrivelled and died, leaving in its place what is effectively a one-party state. It is also one of the first Australian plays which attempts to deal with a political landscape in which designations like "Right" and "Left" are increasingly meaningless, and in which traditional theatrical politics are drastically alienated from the social forces that they allegedy embody.

Ellis developed some of the dialogue from transcripts of workers' testimonials in the Howard Government's Commission for a Living Wage, and originally envisaged a piece of verbatim theatre, before deciding that a zombie play would be more fun and just as pertinent. The result is one of this year's more fascinating failures: a text that falls between straight satire and a more poetic impulse that never quite comes into focus.

The play opens in a waiting room - perhaps a Medicare office, perhaps Social Services, perhaps a hospital - in which a row of people sit in plastic chairs. On the left are those whose blank, dead eyes are deeply shadowed with zombified exhaustion; on the right are a group of people in smart suits, wearing phone headsets. For some time nothing happens, and we watch a smartly choreographed comedy of institutional boredom.

Then a woman demands robotically of a young man: "I'm sorry to ask this, but do you have private health insurance?" The lack of private health insurance means the young man can't afford to save an infected tooth. Instead, he has it extracted in an exquisitely carnal operation, and turns into a zombie: despite his pain, he insists on working his shift as a waiter in a nightclub, covered in blood and drugged to the eyeballs. And so zombiedom spreads it undeadness...

The neatly suited man is Kevin, the Prime Minister (Syd Brisbane). Kevin is visiting Melbourne with his team of four identical diary secretaries, for the 2021 Summit: he needs the best and brightest brains to power his new economy. What he intends to do with those brains becomes, of course, bloodily clear during the course of the play.

Spouting the groupspeak of think tanks and focus groups, the Canberra visitors move through the undead of Melbourne, marvelling at the effect of the brave new economy. They are staying at the casino, which is notable for its huge gas flames that used to roar up and roast unlucky seagulls before they introduced subliminal sound to keep the charred corpses at bay. The hellish gouts of flame are recurring images, flaring up and hypnotising the zombies, just as governments and people are hypnotised by the lure of fast cash.

Of course, the zombies (and seagulls) wreak their revenge, and it turns out that the head zombie is the PM himself, sacrificing his human vitality for the good of the country or, at least, for its corporate sector. And a fair bit of mayhem goes on in between, with dark plots involving bus drivers and bargain basement shopping centres and seers in wheelchairs.

Some of the more powerful moments are monologues from zombies, surreally fragmented descriptions of mundane suffering (tooth ache, mortgage panic) that perhaps are the shadows of the verbatim genesis of this project. This sits uneasily with the more didactic political satire, which amounts to a straightforward condemnation of the alienated and self-serving government-speak spouted by the politicos. The political fable overshadows the human experience that drives it, making the whole, finally, less than the sum of its parts.

There is a feeling that the production and text are straining against each other, and at times cancelling each other out. Certainly, the production dominates the play. Director Daniel Schlusser has assembled a hugely impressive team and uses it to good effect. Kate Davis's design features a screen that lifts to reveal a foreshortened hotel lobby/hospital space, with glassed boxes on both sides that be used as performance spaces or, with blinds drawn, for projections, which include scenes filmed in black and white.

The set is lit with the requisite bloody flair by Niklas Pajanti and Danny Pettingall, and features a brilliant soundscape by Darrin Verhagen. Schlusser has 23 performers, whom he directs in a constantly changing and always interesting mise en scene. It amounts to a hugely ambitious project that somehow loses sight of the trees in the thick of the forest, but which is still well worth a look.

Picture: The Zombie State, by Ben Ellis. Photo: Ponch Hawkes


Anonymous said...

"There is a feeling that the production and text are straining against each other, and at times cancelling each other out. Certainly, the production dominates the play."

Very interesting perspective and it sums up my feelings precisely. I wonder how Daniel Schlusser would go creating a work from scratch, rather than using a 'play'?

I found the language without soul and kinda patchy. But I did enjoy the production. The use of student performers, with professional actors in there was a really interesting way to go.

Got to hand it to Union House Theatre...geez they've done some bloody interesting stuff over the last couple of years. Dontcha reckon?

xxx the baron

Anonymous said...

We film reviewers still assemble in mini-theatres -- DVD is strictly a fallback option.

Also, I thought you might be interested in this:

On Stage And Walls said...

I was fascinated by it, and like you thought the agit-prop and the Zombie schlock were working against each. If the toothache boy could only have been a 'hero' character and fought the Zombie plague (and on another level, the exploitation of the workers) it might have had a narrative thread that could have united the disparate halves. Or maybe if two Zombies could have broken free, like the two robots at the end of RUR.
At the same time it was so good to look at, like a classy Italian horror picture.
And yes, I was just given a copy of The Fly opera to listen to. It’s not good.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, the Union Theatre's doing some interesting stuff. I heard great things about their production of Attempts on Her Life, one of my regretted misses this year (there are a few of those).

I'm glad to hear that film reviewers still do the mini-cinema thing, Jake. If it had been, oh, a silly romance, perhaps my life would have been different! Who knows? As for The Fly, theatre can't do what movies do in terms of literalism. An opera isn't going to make me hide under the chair, although they have been known to send me to very seldom does, no matter how boring it is, but (some) opera can work like a charm. I have a theory that it's because the brain expects something on stage that isn't happening and everything short circuits. Howard Shore is known to me as the composer of the Lord of the Rings film score, which (of course) I think is wonderful. I don't know about this one...hard to say from tiny vids online, though I notice it has a monkey on stage! That has to be worth something!

Michael, the things my ear picked up on were dialogues which gave me a whiff of someone like Churchill, or maybe Mayenberg - a kind of uber-realism that began to be surreal somehow - maybe that was something I'd have liked to have seen followed through, rather than anything to do with plotting. But it's hard to say.

On Stage And Walls said...

Certainly Mayenberg, perhaps El Dorado with the implications dropped throughout the play of great but unclear mass disaster in the background. Perhaps even the lobster scene was an influence. Neil Armfield's staging of Britten's opera of The Turn of the Screw didn't have me hiding under the seat but certainly made my spine tingle. The Kirov Opera production of Prokofiev's Fiery Angel, with the onstage demons visible only to the possessed heroine, was psychologically scary too. I'm always surprised that opera that constantly dips into fairy and fantasy tales for subject matter has produced so few Sci-Fi operas.
The new operas being created have such poor response to words, they are fitted into, what sounds to me like, generic musical phrases that serve or make no point. Sad when it the words that are being made even more prominent by being set to music. The fact that they are rendered unnatural by being sung, and often (thanks to the over reliance on Italian text opera performed in a country like Australia) not in English abstracts everything.
Librettos are often terrible too; The Fly's libretto is like bad operetta

Alison Croggon said...

Well, I should probably clarify that when it doesn't send me to sleep, I think opera is a thrilling artform. I'll confess to not understanding 19th century opera at all - it has often given me uncontrollable giggles - until I saw it in a 18th century European opera house, where suddenly it made sense. I've had my spine-tingles - Kosky's production of Berg's Woyczek, for example, or Einstein on the Beach...) I also have a theory that Dr Who is putting the opera back into space opera, but I guess that's a digression. It's true that contemporary libretti are often awful. Lots of reasons for that, and I agree, words are important.

On Stage And Walls said...

Interesting that opera repertoire is almost entirely dependent on 19th century work, while plays from the same time are rarely seen. The drama of that era is generally written off as melodrama, well-made-plays and all those put downs. And there is part of the problem. Producers will try and make them palatable to modern audiences, that terrible excuse, make them relevant (as though we won't understand war unless we see soldiers in contemporary uniforms carrying machine guns)
There are good works out there, but we will never see them. I'd love it if a composer like Jonathan Dove would make a Dr Who opera. Now there's a role for Teddy Tahu Rhodes!
Speaking of Dr Who and RUR, wouldn't you love to see a production of RUR with Cybermen as the robots?!

Alison Croggon said...

The "relevant" thing is odd, I agree. Basically it assumes we're all narcissists without any sort of metaphorical faculty. It whittles reality down quite severely.

And as for RUR with Cybermen - get Russell T. Davies onto it now, Michael! He's got some downtime coming up...Mind you, the series 4 episode on the Ood was not a million miles away from RUR...

On Stage And Walls said...

I think the Dr Who writers have dipped into RUR many times. Way back in the Tom Baker years ther was "The Robots of Death" where the workforce on a mining planet were all the worker robots were taking over.

Lee Bemrose said...

Off topic, but are you going to see New World Order? I did a story on Ryan JW Smith and he sounds ridiculously talented. I'd be keen to read your thoughts.

Alison Croggon said...

Watched the Dr Who finale (all of it - my fellow watchees couldn't wait after the cligghanger and dug out the DVD) for the second time last night. Yep, pure shameless opera.

Is New World Order coming to Melbourne? I no nuffin. And google didn't help.

richardwatts said...

Haven't had a chance to see The Zombie State yet and suspect that with the fabulous Fringe only a day away I may have to miss it (though there are, I think, four zombie-themed shows in the Fringe, so that's some consolation).


OMG OMG OMG David Cronenberg's The Fly?! I love that film - the man is a true master of body horror. As Emma Westwood notes in her new book, Monster Movies, it's "a chilling reminder of our inevitable deterioration as human beings" - and surely being trapped in our own decaying bodies, and facing the loss of self that is death, is the ultimate horror of all?

And hey, that arm wrestling scene is so unexpected, and so gross-out cool...

richardwatts said...

Oh yeah, and while I'm in fanboy mode - those last two episodes of Doctor Who are impossibly cool fun. Squeeeeeeeeee!

Alison Croggon said...

I meant cliffhanger, of course... ahem. (What's a cligg?) And yes. Squee indeed.

It's a shame if you miss The Zombie State, Richard, though I quite understand.

On Stage And Walls said...

Westie's written a book!?, where do you get it!
I noticed the zombie fest peppered through Fringe. Does this portend a new fashion in theatre? Will Bell Shakespeare do The Tempest with a zombie Caliban. Waiting for Godot could have a zombie Lucky.

Lee Bemrose said...

New World Order is a Fringe event. Google Rogue Shakespeare.

Appearance dates are ----LISTING INFORMATION
Venue: Festival Hub - Lithuanian Club - The Loft (week one) / Ballroom (week two)
Season Dates: 26/09/2008 - 12/09/2008
Times/Notes: 9pm The Loft (Hub) 26th September - 3rd October
6.30pm The Ballroom (Hub) 4th - 11th October Excluding Mondays
Tickets: Preview $13.00, Conc $23.00, Full $26.00, Group $18.00, Tightarse Tues $13.00, Other $5.00
Bookings: Festival Tix: 03 9660 9666 or

I was unaware of him until doing the story but if his press is anything to go by, it should be interesting. So far the show is not coming to Sydney. I'm just a bit curious about the whole thing.