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ANDREW QUICK remembers being frightened by Walt Disney’s Fantasia as a child, specifically the part where Mickey Mouse takes an axe to an enchanted broom only for the pieces to keep coming back to life: “I found it quite terrifying, this little mouse having to deal with something that went on and on and on,” he says.
The memory seems apt. Quick is co-directing with Pete Brooks a live remix of George A Romero’s unrelenting zombie masterpiece Night of the Living Dead at Leeds Playhouse, which starts its run on January 24 and then goes on tour nationally.
“I’ve always been more interested in psychological horror rather than gore horror,” Quick says when we meet. “In Night of the Living Dead, there’s this sort of nuclear family down in the cellar and it must have been very shocking to audiences when the child dies and attacks the mother. That’s a real seminal horror moment for me.”
Staged by Imitating the Dog, the experimental theatre company Quick helped set up in 1998, actors will attempt to recreate Romero’s original film alongside it in real time.
A dry-run at Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill last year highlighted the insane challenge of just such an endeavour – plus some of its allure: “As things get more desperate you get caught up in the visceral energy, despite the fact the film’s now over 50 years old.”
Released in 1968, Night of the Living Dead came at a time of escalating US involvement in Vietnam and violent protests and assassinations at home. “It is haunted by the politics and crises of its time,” Quick says. “The fact its black central character is shot dead at the end by a white lynch mob, the symbolism is all there. I think the race politics is still very relevant, both to America and to here.”
There’s a kind of “logic and morality to zombies,” he says. “It’s humans that can’t cope. We can’t lose the culture we have, which is one of division and not working collectively to solve problems. That feels very relevant, just after the election.”
Fascinated by cinema’s power to reshape theatre, early works by Imitating the Dog consciously drew on cinematic approaches, while adaptations of literary big-hitters such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness appropriated film technology to proffer fresh routes back into their morally conflicted sources.
“You want the audience to be involved emotionally and be thrilled,” Quick explains. “You hope it carries with it something else but it’s not about the ideas first, it’s the stories. That’s what’s great about [Night of the Living Dead] because we’re not changing it.
“The story is the movie and our attempt to restage it within the rules we set.”
Those rules feel more like live television than live theatre, I suggest. “That’s exactly what it’s like,” Quick says. “The stage is like a mad running machine. The film is in the actors’ ears all the time, so they’re having to do the moves, having to get in position with a camera or prop or model. It’s crazy.
“They have to be able to negotiate an almost impossible set of obstacles to create that perfect moment where what’s happening on stage synchronises with what’s happening in the film.
“Of course, sometimes they’ll fail. Failure is what tells you it’s live. It’s the opposite of modern politics, where everyone is protected. They’ll walk in a fridge rather than be caught in front of a camera and have to address real questions in real time.
“That’s what we’re doing here: dealing with the film in real time in front of a live audience and that’s the risk. That’s the risk of theatre. That’s the joy of it.”
Night of the Living Dead Remix runs at Leeds Playhouse from January 24 to February 15 and then tours nationally until March 21. Details: imitatingthedog.co.uk
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