Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead

I arrived late, and there was still a long line of people being seated. This is a sure Fringe hit, not least because it has one of the best titles in the Festival.

So it’s a mash-up of Shakespeare plays and zombie movies, and I’m a huge fan of both. The former is definitely the more rewarding — the script is loaded down with clever references, lines from the plays, controversies about the writer’s life. (The use of his epitaph in this context filled me with helpless giggling: “Good frend for Iesus sake forbeare/To digg the dvst encloased heare/Blese be ye man yt spares thes stones/And cvrst be he yt moves my bones.”) There’s enough such gags whizzing past that there were several gems the audience missed (“Is this the end of sombre Shakespeare?”, a homonym of the line from the Simpsons halloween special.) There are not a lot of missed opportunities on that front.

Despite the metafictional jokes, this is played for the most part pretty poker-faced, and I’m thrilled — the premise is absurd enough that this would probably have been pretty dreadful if the cast clowned it up. But then the zombie fan in me pipes up, and found myself wanting this to be much darker — we had a few thoughtful conversations between characters, but I miss the sheer brutality, the nihilism, the blackly comic streak of so much zombie horror.

WARNING: GEEK SHIT AHEAD

In particular, I didn’t feel that the zombies posed a credible threat, and I think that breaks down to two things:

1) They were so damn easy to kill — poke ‘em in a side with a sword and they’re down for the count. I missed the shambling, unstoppable horror — that terrified anticipation of “Is it really dead? Is it going to stay down this time?” While I appreciate that the traditional method of dispatching zombies — removing the head or destroying the brain — is a bit, um, difficult to stage, a lot of the potential comic — and dramatic — tension was lost.

2) They weren’t nearly brutal enough — they’d lurch towards their victims and gnaw on their necks for a while. Where was the blood? Where was the gore? Where were the chunks of human flesh flying through the air and being splattered across the mourning lover’s horrified face, scarring them indelibly for what remains of an undoubtedly brief and nightmarish life? Again, um, probably difficult to stage. But aside from the glorious torture-porn aspects of the genre, it serves a philosophical function, too (and one that Shakespeare would possibly have approved of) — man is meat. And when society collapses, any other illusion we have about ourselves collapses as well.

The basic structure of the zombie movie remains intact — a small group of survivors holes up in a secure place, and promptly ends up tearing each other apart. In fact, despite the author’s obvious love for the canon, the whole play is strikingly modern — it has a lot more to do with Sam Beckett than Master Shakespeare.

The concept sets the bar so high that it’s almost impossible for the show to live up to it. It’s a great Fringe show — funny, with a few cerebral streaks. I just found myself longing for something much darker, much sicker. Which may not be fair, but, well. There it is.

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