Tag Archives: Union House Theatre

Review: The Zombie State

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.

The grand and furious nightmare of The Zombie State was initially conceived as verbatim theatre, drawing upon workers’ submissions to the Howard government’s Commission for the Living Wage, and the line between mundane naturalism and hysterical parody is as sharp and thin as it was on Swanston Street on those cold Saturday nights, when structured mating rituals disintegrated into an orgy of publicly discharged bodily fluids, when healthy, acceptable business aggression morphed into senseless street fighting, and vegetarian KFC bodyguards seemed the most approximate flotsam of orderly humanity.

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.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Attempts on Her Life; or the anatomy of a decade.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre: Attempts on Her Life. Written by Martin Crimp. Directed by Susie Dee. Sound Design and Composition by Kelly Ryall. Set and Costume Design by Jeminah Reidy. Lighting Design by Niklas Pajanti. Audio-Visual Design by Nicholas Verso. Cast: Rhys Aconley-Jones, Chloe Boreham, Ananth Gopal, Kali Hulme, Joshua Lynzaat, Jen Mackie, Laura Maitland, Jan Mihal, Ella Roberts, Anna Teresa Scheer, Sophie Testart and Megan Twycross. Guild Theatre, University of Melbourne, 16 – 24 May 2008. Bookings on 03) 8344 7447 or www.union.unimelb.edu.au/tickets.

A virtually identical version of this article can be found online on vibewire.net.

There is something about the theatre of blood and sperm (in the sense of a distinct spatio-temporal artistic trend, centred on the UK, but also a bit of Germany, Austria and the ex-Balkans) that seems to me to speak most clearly and precisely of what 1990s were. Watching Attempts on Her Life, a Melbourne University Student Union Theatre production of a 1997 text by Martin Crimp, for the first time I came to realise how our entire worldview changed with the war in Bosnia. It is a view from the distance, and yet to me (who has spent the 1990s somewhat closer to the epicentre) this enormous, eye-opening change of perspective was never reported as accurately as it is in these wounded, screaming plays. Not even by, say, Kusturica. I had a vague idea, previously, that Bosnia became Western Europe's big trauma, a failure of optimism, but never took it seriously ('our suffering is so much bigger'). In retrospect, the crash of hopes within Bosnia was probably complementary, rather than contrasting, to the larger disillusion.

So what really happened in the 1990s? There was our war, a brutal, senseless and incredibly immediate war. In Britain, there was the introduction of CCTV and the rise of surveillance society. There were the first doubts on consumerism, channelled through the early slacker fiction. After the ambitious 1980s, it started becoming apparent that our enormous appetite was not just a consequence of our fulfilling ambitions, that it was not a constructive consumption, a transformation of elements. It had turned into consumption for consumption's sake, blind and insatiable, until, to paraphrase both Slavoj Žižek and Viktor Pelevin (1999), it became a monotonous murmur of absorbing and disgorging, joyless but for the punctuating, ever briefer wow!-moments. There was the first mention of eating disorders. Yet the formal rhetoric of the mass (and not so mass) media, inherited from the 1980s, was that of the end of history, the best of all possible worlds, endless joy, how lucky are we?!

Today, the lag between what we feel and what we are told to feel is slightly different – post-9/11 world is a sombre world – and the dissident behaviour nowadays is, perhaps, to trust thy neighbour and not feel afraid (see American indie). Then, however, the arts reacted with an explosion of violent nihilism, as if subconsciously we were trying to heal the gap between what we heard and what we felt. It was the decade of Trainspotting (1996), Nirvana (1991-1994), Tracy Emin, The Prodigy (early 1990s), Fight Club (1999). Even reading early Bridget Jones (1995) leaves an aftertaste, for all the shopping and gossiping is framed by dysfunctional eating and persistent binge drinking. When the towers collapsed, Baudrillard said they had to; we had been making them collapse in films so persistently we brought it on ourselves. Our return of the repressed. But perhaps it was simply the external reality bursting the same feel-good bubble that we were trying to burst from the inside, through our art, all along.

It was all slightly different elsewhere. While Europe had a real war on its doorstep, the US had a televised one that – again quoth Baudrillard – never happened. I would be curious to know what an Australian subject in 2008 may find in Attempts on Her Life, what sort of reading they would have. Perhaps the war on terror has created the same de-localised anxiety here. But my entire life flashed before my eyes. In-yer-face was so good, so accurate at nailing the threads that connected our fears. Perhaps it is the theatrical medium that allowed these plays to circumvent plot, cause and effect, setting or rounded characters, and keep alive the tenuous threads between acts and emotions, that now makes them such a mirror of a decade. In Blasted (1995), the violence Out There and its impact on our ability to love. In Family Stories (1998), the guilt for our children's future. In Woman-Bomb (2003, but it counts), the raging impotence in the face of coerced serenity, governmental soothing.

In Attempts, the inability to quite pinpoint what it is that worries us, between the everyday hedonism here and immense suffering elsewhere, results in a disconnected series of semi-portraits, of semi-stories, of variations on a feeling. The text is subtitled 17 Scenarios for theatre: the death of Anna, Anny, Anja, Anushka, figurative, artistic or medically sound, is narrated in fragments, dialogues, commentary, songs, video, arguments, answering machine messages. Recurring motifs are war, femininity, surveillance, despair. Not innocently, the empty vessel on whose person the scenarios are played out is a woman.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre's production, in the skillful hands of Susie Dee, plays with the possibilities of theatre. As much as the context of certain dialogues is transparent, they are never staged literally, but hover in a dreamspace, a not-quite-space. As a result, the production refrains from situating the meaning in any one place (imagine the boredom of 17 times same), leaving it both associative and open-ended.

Photo credits: Vicki Jones

Jeminah Reidy's set puts the audience in the centre, in a swarm of swivel chairs, while the stage hugs the sides of the theatre, as a long, white, tiled underground station. The actors (for there are no characters) talk to each other, argue, across the auditorium, which results in some beautiful mass movement, as audience members swivel left to right, following the action. From one fragment of a story to another, the focus shifts from left to right, backstage to front, until, all possibilities exhausted, it ends exactly where it started. Cyclic nature of life or exhaustion, it nonetheless feels complete, concluded.

Some of the attempts on her life are simply exquisite: a battle of art criticism over her posthumous exhibition of suicide notes, despite all its mime of realism staged as a dream, a nightmare, of a gallery opening. Autobiography of a sex worker (replete with vivre-sa-vie-claims), confessed in third-person (restrained and fragile Megan Twycross), behind a screen, with a mass dance, interrupted half-way and from then on dictated by the translator (militantly French Chloe Boreham). An unexpected song (excellent Kali Hulme). The central point of the performance to me seemed to be a faux-advertisement for pink caddillac Anny, presented in Bosnian Croatian (I may have misheard here, and if so I apologise for any offense) with a sexy MC (rather good-looking Jan Mihal), turbo-folk music and three dancers in fluorescent pink parkas (overflowing with references to nouveau riche, war profiteers, the new bad taste). As the advertisement progressively degenerated, turning from the sum of our desires („always a beautiful blonde inside“) into the sum of our repressed anxieties (with „no room for Gypsies, Arabs, Kurds, blacks“), I was reminded not only of the vast semantic cathedral attached to the possession of a good car in a place like Bosnia, but also of those sarcastic news programs Danijel Žeželj created in Sun City (1993), in which genocide, wars, and new ozone holes were interspersed with hardcore porn and an order: smile wider!, wider!

Is Melbourne University Student Union Theatre always this good? Was I meant to be aware? Only the occasional acting glitch points to this being a non-professional production, rather than something that Malthouse could be staging. Right. Now. It did help that Crimp’s play may be the most brutally, icily poetic text I have encountered in a Melbourne theatre in a while. Whichever way, this outstandingly creative and courageous production may be the best thing currently playing.

See also: On Stage (and walls)

Tagged , , , , ,