imitating the dog’s screening of Romero’s classic zombie (sorry, “ghoul”) movie Night of the Living Dead is interrupted by an emergency news broadcast. John F. Kennedy has been murdered. Matt Prendergast’s newsreader assumes an authoritative tone but even he’s visibly ruffled; nobody can quite understand what’s going on. Cut to the movie, or its side-by-side facsimile as created live underneath the two screens, and survivor Barbara (Laura Atherton and for some wide shots, Adela Rajnovik) shares the same terrified confusion. She’s just fled a ghoul who’s killed her brother, on a day that had felt almost tiresomely predictable. A stately procession to their father’s grave, interrupted by an attack neither of them saw coming. These parallel stories are five years apart, sure, but it’s easy to see what imitating the dog are getting at with their latest adaptation. The 1960s was an incredibly turbulent time for America, and as evidenced by the remix of further assassination announcements (Martin Luther King Jr, Robert Kennedy) throughout the performance. This production depicts an America that tears itself apart from the inside – and isn’t located safely behind a screen.
Simon Wainwright’s video design often revolves around the American flag, forcing an uncomfortable juxtaposition of national pride against senseless violence both in and out of the performance. Cinematic flashes of Laura Hopkins’ malleable “average American” house literally bring the social commentary home. Footage of white hooded KKK members appears after a bulletin describes the ghouls’ advance on the country, in a moment that feels like a scene from the HBO Watchmen series. There’s enough relatability to today’s rising right-wing sympathies to make you squirm. Similarly, when Ben (Morgan Bailey) delivers a monologue made up of speeches from the aftermath of real-life assassination events, it imbues his eventual death with even more pathos. Just seconds after his appeal to the audience about the dangers of mindless violence and racial stereotyping, he’s shot down by a rescue squad. The gunmen think they’re doing the right thing, congratulating one another. Moments earlier Bailey states that “a sniper is a coward, not a hero.”
Bailey is a standout performer, not only because of that ending monologue. His Ben is a level-headed voice of calm among the chaos. Before he arrives, the play-by-play has felt accurate, almost corny. It’s highly entertaining to watch a miniature car “drive” along painted roads, but it’s uncertain whether imitating the dog want their audience to laugh at how shoestring some of the production is: the place for humour in this remake is obscured. I’d wonder whether the company wants to lull the viewer into a false sense of security before unleashing social commentary, but that’s present from the very beginning. Is it a taboo kind of laughter, then, like making jokes at a funeral? In trying to push a larger message outside of the film, those shot-for-shot scenes can run the risk of falling flat, and lacking the hook of Romero’s original. Bailey’s performance emerges from the facsimile and feels refreshing, driving the knife even further when Ben’s killed so abruptly.
Whilst Pete Brooks and Andrew Quick’s direction doesn’t always focus on honing true-to-life performances, you really can’t fault the technical execution. In particular the visual design shines: tricks of perspective and a deceptive amount of detail go into the line drawings which animate in fits and bursts across the walls of the set. Likewise, the sixties aesthetic curated by Sarah Holland is simple but effective, plenty of clean lines and chaotic wigs to match the B-movie nature of the production. That clean cut aesthetic invokes a rose-tinted fondness for the past, and the sixties in particular, as an aesthetic often cleaved from its politics for the sake of nostalgia. imitating the dog follow that same pattern of paying lip service to a ‘forgotten’ decade, before pulling out all those filthy entrails of prejudice, hatred and violence on violence. It’s blaring through when the characters in Night of the Living Dead fiddle with a radio dial, or turn on the television. We’re watching art imitate art, in turn imitate life. There’s a reality the production forces in the audience’s face which is enough to make my stomach lurch, just a little, at how much I’d been enjoying those Frankie Valli tunes before the show started.
Night of the Living Dead – Remix runs at Leeds Playhouse until 15th February, then tours the UK until 21st March. More info here.