This review has been published in Laneway.
In its best moments, The Zombie State is Saturday night in the CBD.
At a cultural low point in my life, when I used to catch the glorious 4.30am Night Rider to Frankston, it was my weekly dose of the strangest of the Melbourne microcosmos. Nightshift workers, hospitality plebs, aggressive Frankstonians, vomiting girls, the desperate homeless that couldn’t pay their way out of Swanston Street that night, young accountants drinking their way out of existential angst, business tourists, casino winners and casino losers, all mingled in a haze of bile, spit, alcohol fumes, violence, money, vomit. I would escape to the KFC bouncers (another Saturday night phenomenon), a small, pacifist Sikh micro-community, who fed me spicy chicken with vegetarian detachment. The climax of the ride home, which inevitably involved brawls, singing and attempts at backseat intercourse, was the passage down Carlisle Street in St Kilda, when the entire bus would open the windows to shout abusive nonsense at the sex workers (who responded with comparative grace). And I would wonder about the personas these monster people assumed in daylight.
The Zombie State is the same barely controlled human grotesque. It flirts with the zombie horror genre, leaning on its own fear of the mindless crowd, the collective loss of reason. It’s the story of Prime Minister Kevin’s orchestration of Summit 2021, during which aloof teenagers overdose, clairvoyants foretell doom, Crown Casino cleaners clean, zombies dance themselves to death, Night Rider passengers are abducted for underground experiments and a posse of Persephones fight killer seagulls.
As long as the text is muffled, pinched and distorted through the enormous stage activity, as long as the setting, characters and context are barely approximated, it is an Artaudian phantasmagoria of associative illogic, a visual and aural feast as assaulting to the senses as it is delicately teasing to the mind. There is more than a pinch of the post-pretty European to Daniel Schlusser’s direction: that many of these actors are fundamentally playing themselves is not insignificant.
In terms of the sheer imagery Zombie State generates, there is enough in these 75 minutes to occupy a curious mind for weeks. It is passionately theatrical, with a cast of 26 (huge for Melburnian standards) fluidly moving through the glass cubicles, projections, backstage recordings and sound curtains that build into an experience that’s visceral, immediate, and decidedly un-television.
Alas, the script is the weakest part of the show, and the ending, played straight and political, catapults a mesmerising experience into the realm of didacticism. The Zombie State, for all its expansive, warm illusion of chaos, carefully walks the rope stretched between broad social farce and anti-dramatic fantasia, not giving in to either until the end. Both paths, hoinwever, are essentially neverending, the only possible conclusions being either implosion or explosion, theatre turning onto itself or onto the audience.
Instead, it reveals its political undergarments, with an unfortunate, politically hammy question mark that bogs down what had until then successfully remained mid-air with levity and infinite grace. In retrospect, the entire play looks tainted with programmatic politics, all those moments of social-realist dialogue suddenly springing up in the mind, the playfulness receding, the grand oneiric beauty lost with one sweep of the writing hand. While a zombie is spurting blood in a vague waiting room with an egg slowly frying on the back screen, the dentist can torture him for not having health insurance: our social sensibility is fully activated, but our sensuousness nourished nonetheless. But when Prime Minister Kevin declares that choosing zombidom allows him to rule the country without needing sleep, that delicate tickle of counterpointed images and words is shot down with a loud bang.
As strange as it may sound, Schlusser’s theatre could have been more successful had it completely renounced text. It flirts with the barely controlled plotless chaos of European performance collectives, building powerful effects out of images alone, using text as only one layer of the performancescape (something rare and needed in Australian theatre), but ultimately returns to the dictate of the writer’s message, dismantling its own battle machine. And yet, despite its flaws, I don’t remember the last time it was so exciting to be in the theatre in this city. By all means, this is a production not to miss, a rare gem of near-Regietheater in Melbourne.
The Zombie State by Ben Ellis. Directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and costumes: Kate Davis. Lighting design: Niklas Pajanti and Danny Pettingill. Sound design: Darrin Verhagen. Melbourne Workers Theatre and Union House Theatre. Union Theatre, Melbourne University, September 17-27.