The Stationary Dead [by James Wenley]
So, the Zombie Apocalypse is finally upon us, but it has arrived with more of a low moan than a blood-lusting scream.
Royale Productions’ high-concept Apocalypse Z – written by Simon London and David Van Horn and directed by Andrew Foster – has barricaded itself securely within Aotea Centre. The square is host to one of the few refuges yet to fall to the onslaught of the “infected”, a last hope for we lucky few remaining survivors to be airlifted to the safe zone. Feeding into the contemporary mania for all things Zombie, and selling itself with buzzwords like “interactive” and “immersive theatrical experience”, Z has run an impeccable promotional campaign that has even included a zombie reporter reading the news. Z, however, has oversold itself on two fronts. First, there’s a practical issue of audience numbers and space. Second, expectations built high, the pay off needs more flesh and braaaiiins.
Zombies have remained perennially popular sub-genre, but at the moment they seem to be in something of a cultural ascendance. Local Apocalypse Z (said with a kiwi “Zed”) hits among such titles as The Walking Dead on TV, and films Warm Bodies, and World War Z. There’s many an academic treatise on what zombies represent – population breakdown and the unthinking masses – but on an entertainment level they have grotesque appeal as decaying corpses, reveling in gore and guts and ripped limbs, and make for a frightening threat in numbers. In Z the zombies are victims of a virus ala 28 Days Later, playing into our fears of pandemics, but the usual tropes of zombies as lumbering, dim-witted (and even slightly comical) vessels, very difficult to stop, are accounted for here. This virus has infected the overwhelming majority of the world’s population (its pleasing to know that in NZ under this scenario, our infection rate is slightly below the world average), nobody knows where it has come from, or how to stop it. For those that have not succumbed, there is but one objective: to survive.
Before we can enter the Aotea outpost – an impressive improvised stronghold of container crates and mesh fences (Foster) – we have to be patted down for weapons by security honcho Nelson (Fasitua Amosa) before waiting in a cattle-like holding pen which is lined forebodingly overhead by bags of blood. Carver (Phil Brown), armed with assault rifle, watches over us. Adam (David Van Horn) shines light in our eyes and asks to see our teeth. There are some dramas: one man is turned away because he does not have his pass. Robin (Simon London) shouts out for his wife and daughter, who have not arrived. These characters are all clearly part of the show, but you’re not sure if others amongst you are also along for the ride. Is that actor over there who has bought a ticket to the show, or will he be part of it? And isn’t that the Technical Designer who has slipped in amongst us? Trust no-one.
It’s a bit of a procedure to process a 100+ audience members, but anticipation and atmosphere prevents too much of a lag. Once the gates are firmly closed, we are ushered and divided into three groups in a secure courtyard, and the premise begins strongly. Carver, the military leader, cynically sets up the new world of the apocalypse, the parameters of the virus, and the personal family losses he has suffered. But we are assured its okay, all we need to do is be tested and cleared of the virus, have a cross stamped on our arm, and the ARC (Armed Rescue Coalition) will come to bring us to safety. But this procedure is memorably disrupted, and soon the audience surge into a secure interior location under lockdown.
There we remain for almost the entirety of the rest of the play, and it is here that the show’s tension and momentum begins to unravel. The immediate problem is the audience situation. The outpost’s tech Xavier (Ash Jones) encourages us to take a chair, but as we continue to pack into the space we end up with a clump of people standing in the middle, blocking the view for those either side. We’ve also found ourselves back in the traditional audience/performer relationship – as tightly packed as we are, it’s still very much us over here, them over there. This configuration is partly encouraged by a wall of projected CCTV images of the outpost’s exterior, including footage of a collection of zombies stumbling around the Square.
Weighed against the buildup of interactive theatre, I found the experience a largely passive one, watching the plot points happen in front of me. The story serves the set-pieces, and while these are thrilling, there wasn’t the consistency of narrative turns or character work (most remain bare sketches) to keep me fully engaged throughout. A compelling moral dilemma is introduced with the appearance of Robin’s missing daughter, but the audience’s potential complicity is not exploited.
There are big moments that rouse you out of passivity: a scuffle in the courtyard or a visceral zombie takedown, which got a big cheer out of me. The late in the game arrival of ARC co-ordinator Jenny (Lauren Gibson) injects some new energy and purpose, and we finally rush out of the containing room. But as I emerge into fresh air at show’s end, I was consumed with the deflating question of “Was that it?”
The actors work hard to help us buy the world of Apocalypse Z, although there’s a bit of wink, wink, nudge, nudge from Brown to ease us at the top of the show. Amosa’s tough-talking Nelson, K Road bouncer before the outbreak, would be the cult-favourite in the movie version.
With the focus on immersive live-ness, curiously it is the mediated video screens that were most successful in suspending that all important disbelief and eliciting shock and gasps. When we see deaths happen on screen, we feel them. The video work is the Z’s best weapons in building up the outside threat.
Z has been made for the video-game generation, but is a video game that only has one or two levels to clock, and your friend has the controller. We remain cramped in the container room for too long, without enough escalation.
There’s an understandable financial ratio at play in terms of audience size, but the current mix, as an audience advocate, detracts from the individual experience. At the very least, something more needs to be done about better situating the audience within the containing room from the beginning, as we are going to be there for the long haul.
At the end we were surveyed about the show, and in answer to the question about how scared I was in the show, I rated 0. My colleague, who freely admits to be overly squeamish rated herself at a 3 (out of 5), which gives some indication of the fear factor (the show is rated R13).
Z depends on audience buy-in, and no doubt the actors will be able to trade war stories about the audiences they experienced at the end of the season. With the initial security checks shaking us out of the everyday, more needed to be done to maintain this buy-in. For the full immersive experience, more agency could be given to the audience: give us the feeling of playing on this video game controller. This had been a stated intention from the producers prior to the season and one worth more fully exploring for future seasons.
Apocalypse Z has real appeal as an opportunity to play out our fantasies and nightmares, to consider what we would do if we were under threat, or to borrow from their guerilla poster campaign, what we would do to survive.
There were two moments for me were this was borne out. The first was how quickly some in the audience were to call for someone else’s death. This has some implications for our desensitized video game culture: lives – people – can be easily disposed. Here perhaps the situation was not real, here they were in the fantasy. But the second? An audience member is given a stamp, the cross, the marker that will identify us as clean and able to be rescued. The audience surge around him, arms outstretched. I put my arm out too. He places the + on my arm, and my heart skips a beat.
Apocalypse Z is presented by Royale Productions and STAMP at THE EDGE, and plays at Auckland’s last Zombie-free outpost in Aotea Square, 12-27 April. Details see THE EDGE.
And Matt Baker’s preview with the show’s creators: Getting into the Zombie action of Apocalypse Z