The Lazarus pathogen is spreading through Edinburgh and people are starting to behave like zombies. Summerhall is a sterile zone, and the uninfected have flocked there. The army and the scientists assigned to deal with this problem have 3 options: cull the PALPs (that’s ‘People Affected by the Lazarus Pathogen’ for you non-zombie-fighting muggles), find an antidote to the pathogen or sacrifice the city, annihilating the problems with a fuck tonne of bombs, for the good of mankind. They cannot reach a decision, and so invite the plebs who have wandered into the safe zone to assist. They have one hour to make a choice and inform the UN. If the UN receive no information, they will terminate Edinburgh.
The first 20 minutes of Deadinburgh build tension enough to let you think it could get amazing. Soldiers are patrolling and bringing tension up, there’s an atmosphere of the unknown and a really exciting sense of group confusion amongst the 200 strong audience. The infected break into the Summerhall courtyard where we are congregated, and we rush indoors to escape. Inside, the situation is explained through a short and well performed scene, and we are assigned our task, along with two soldiers for protection. The mission begins.
In a group of about 20, we race through Summerhall’s labyrinthine layout until we get to a classroom. Then, a slow lecture spends 20 minutes chipping away at the tense atmosphere until it lies dead and cold upon the floor.
We have 3 lectures in total. In each, scientists explain what they believe to be the cause of zombification, and what the solution may be. Between each lecture, we take a supposedly perilous walk to the next destination. In my first lecture, the possibility of using modified 3D printers to print new organs using stem cells to replace those of the infected is explored. In my second, an incredibly adorable woman hypothesises the hunger for human flesh is an eating disorder and the zombies need cognitive therapy. Finally, a group of 3 people who can’t project sit in a very echo-ey room and discuss the definition of zombies and how the infection might spread; they believe an inoculation can be developed but it will require draining the zombies completely of blood, killing them and unsubtly forcing us to consider the moral implication of our decision.
Deadinburgh‘s team emphasise in their online copy that the scientists are real. At University, lectures were the thing I most loathed, finding them static and disengaged. An unfortunate thing about academia is that in depth knowledge is not necessarily coupled with charisma. In 2 of the 3 lectures, I found this the case. Learning through theatre has the potential to be inspiring because it can explore inventive ways of teaching, making it a bizarre decision to pass on vital information in a fairly uninspiring fashion.
Deadinburgh‘s trailer is full of running and fear and at the end a guy is SHOT IN THE FACE. Their tagline, ‘Will you make it?’, implies that there is a possibility you won’t. Their design uses colour schemes and fonts similar to Dawn of the Dead, and even more similar to Shaun of the Dead’s brand identity. It builds excitement and then leaves you disappointed when you aren’t cornered by a zombie and left to beat the shit out of it with a cricket bat. Marketing needs to function in that tickets need to be sold, and in order to do that it needs to be grabbing and exciting. However, it is also important that marketing materials actually reflect what they are selling otherwise you’re misleading audiences into spending money. It implies that the selling of the tickets is more important than the reason you want people to see your work in the first place. They do mention the science elements, but not that things take a lecture format for the majority of the production.
There is minimal running and no cricket-bat wielding, but there were certainly people expecting this, which might indicate the marketing was a misfire. A few people in the audience also had a fair whack of science knowledge behind them. Immersive performances are the internet forum of theatre: they are open to massive amounts of trolling. If emotions were running high and you were given minimal chance to think things through, the gaping holes in the logic on display in Deadinburgh wouldn’t be as easy to spot. But every now and then there’s a sassiness and an aggression to the tone of questions posed that implies a dissatisfaction amongst the crowd (at the end of each lecture and just before the vote we are allowed to ask questions which may aid our decision). People can not only find lack of logic, but they can point it out to everyone else in the room. Question time in general is uncomfortable, especially when no one has a question and so a minute of silence deadens the sense of emergency. Scientists are interrogated on why we are draining the zombies of all blood, and not using smaller amounts like blood donations, and why we are referring to it as a pathogen if we think it may be psychological, or, mainly, WHY BOMBING THE ENTIRE CITY IS EVEN CONSIDERED A VALID OPTION.
The soldiers leading each group are exceptional, though. The brief amounts of time between lectures are fun, though not as terrifying as you’d hope from a scene putting you on the undead’s door. Each duo has the immense task of bouying up the atmosphere once a lecture has left it limp, and it’s one hell of a fight but they turn in a valiant effort. Summerhall’s dressing is excellent, too, with well designed warnings plastering the place and signs of struggle from the captured infected, which make the setting more realistic than the actual situation. There’s a zombie zoo at one point: a corridor lined with caged PALPs. Like the soldiers, they put on a good show and are unbelievably energetic, but it’s just not enough to rescue things. Further efforts to heighten the feeling of impending doom are just fucking illogical, thoug; zombies and soldiers make sense in the scenario but why, when you ask the audience to make their way to the back of a room to vote, would you play bass driven music and start flashing a load of lights like it’s some sort of apocalypse disco? It is difficult to be immersed in crisis when the atmosphere is so up and down it constantly brings the believability into question.
One of the absolute joys of immersive theatre is that it allows you to find interest in the rest of the audience as well as the performers. We don’t even get to do that. Lectures take the form of end on theatre and so don’t allow new relationships to form and develop or let you see the reactions of others. Everything out of a lecture involves being in line formation with just your buddy (who you inevitably know) which doesn’t promote banter, either. If question and answer was replaced with debate we might be able to get a bit of passion, or one of the trolls might fight tooth and nail for sacrificing everyone and make it interesting. But no, everyone else in the audience might as well be as character-less as the zombies infecting the city in which you inhabit because you aren’t getting any chat from them.
HOWEVER. Deadinburgh does have a BRILLIANT ending. The crowd I was part of voted to cure the diseased PALPs. When the outcome of the vote was announced, everything went dark and from the back of the room we hear grunts and groans and zombies emerge onto the balcony. Then the lights start flashing, music blasts out and the zombies start dancing. It is hilarious: a truly gorgeous shift in tone.. A party begins and the audience celebrate the end of the world.
Deadinburgh has elements that are well executed well, but it makes little sense at times which is exacerbated by its slightly ill targeted marketing. It seems to care more about its image than its content: it is an odd show that finds the perfectly branded beer for its final party (Zombier – see what they did there?!) but doesn’t come up with answers to inevitable questions such as ‘right, so why can’t we contact anyone?’. Immersive theatre is one of the kinds of theatre more likely to get your heart racing, but Deadinburgh‘s lecture driven format make it an odd candidate for the style, as it means it rejects many of the real pleasures of attending an immersive show as well as damages the atmosphere so key to its own success.
It is, though, exciting to see Summerhall being used with more frequency and for more experimental things – while Deadinburgh may not be great, immersive theatre is not commonplace in Edinburgh and the more people who start to play in Scotland the better.
(Additional note: I fear I may have been a little harsh on Deadinburgh, and I worry this is down to a few things that may have biased me. In the interest of balance, I will explain my bias so you can decide whether you feel these factors have coloured my impressions of the show.
Firstly, I am not especially interested in zombie related things in the first place, so I might not be the ideal audience member.
Secondly, my ‘buddy’ was part of the creative process behind Deadinburgh. This means I had some existing knowledge of the experience, which may have lessened its impact. I also knew a number of the people playing zombies, one of whom was my buddy’s girlfriend. It’s difficult to fear zombies when you know the person assigned to protect you is sleeping with one of them.
Thirdly, we are randomly assorted into groups. As I sat down in my first lecture, an early question was asked by an oddly familiar voice. I turned around and, randomly, I had been placed in a group with someone I used to go out with. We each caught the other’s eye and it was SO AWKWARD. We didn’t end on brilliant terms (fortunately, we also did not end on bile-spewingly bad terms, either), and we had not seen each other since we ceased to date. It is very difficult to concentrate on learning about fictional zombies when you are focusing on getting to a seat that is far away so as to avoid unnecessary conversation without it seeming like you are deliberately avoiding someone. It’s just not ideal that you’re first discussion post-break up is about whether sacrificing Scotland’s capital is the solution to stopping the apocolypse. Quite frankly, unexpected zombie-banter with an ex would make sacrifice seem a much more appealing option.)