The Zombie State | Melbourne Workers TheatrePhotos Ponch Hawkes

Rows of people stand before us. Some are swaying slightly while others slump, apparently asleep. They all share a dull, glazed demeanor. Some are alive and some are dead. But which is which?

The Zombie State (written by Ben Ellis and directed by Daniel Schlusser) is presented as a partnership between Melbourne Workers Theatre and Melbourne University’s Union House Theatre.

The year is 2021 and Melbourne is inhabited with the undead. These automatons go about their jobs (Dentist, Doctor, Shop Girl, Teacher) doggedly surviving and the world they inhabit is wretched and joyless. Led by their charismatic but hapless Prime Minister Kevin (Syd Brisbane) who spouts ineffectual rhetoric and policy in the face of their suffering, the inevitable uprising is a bloody and violent one.

The text is based primarily on verbatim testimonials sourced from the Howard Government’s Commission for the Living Wage. Re-contextulised within the surreal, subterranean world of the play, these accounts of disillusionment, dissatisfaction and mere survival combine with the visual elements of the production to create a bleak future for Australia’s working class.

The Zombie State was designed by Kate Davis and the set succeeds in portraying an environment that is at once mundane and eerily ‘other’. The constant transformation of the space added to the sense of fluid disorientation as it becomes apparent that everything is not what it seems. A foreshortened corridor fills the stage, lined with doors through which we can only glimpse distorted figures and shadows, reminiscent of a meat packing plant or an underground bunker. Live projections of backstage action are streamed and displayed at the front of the space, adding to the claustrophobia of the piece.

A large ensemble cast delivers the often disjointed text to varying levels of success. It was at these points that the performances onstage didn’t match the dense production values and multi-faceted design. As the action unraveled towards its bloody conclusion, there was the inevitable Artaud inspired chaos that is so often characteristic of a student production. The last third of the play unfolded with little respite or variance in the dramatic tone and sat in fifth gear until the conclusion, as each member of the cast fulfilled their blood-soaked moment in the sun.

There were however, some deliciously wry twists and touches (watch for the entrance of the seagull) and references to the zombie genre that placed the tongue firmly in cheek.

The metaphor of the worker as a drone or automaton is not a new one (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Orwell’s 1984 among others) but writer Ben Ellis and director Daniel Schlusser have attempted a production that is places the action very close to home, filled with relevant issues and questions as Australia moves into the 21st century.

AND there’s flesh-eating zombies.

Melbourne Workers Theatre/Union House Theatre present
The Zombie State
by Ben Ellis

Venue: Union Theatre | Ground floor, Union House, University of Melbourne
Dates/Times: 16-27 September at 8pm
Tickets: Full $25/ Conc $15/ Members $12

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