Subsist

J D Henshaw
DBS Productions
Sweet Grassmarket

Another post-apocalyptic zombie drama? It sounds like it'll be a cliché-ridden gore fest, but by goodness this new play from J D Henshaw transcends the limitations the genre can impose. It is a gripping, claustrophobic account of the fraying psychologies of a handful of survivors of the "virus", who have banded together in a loose alliance but who each have one and only priority, to keep their own selves alive.

Large chunks of the play take place in disorientating darkness punctured by the characters' terrified shouts, and our sense of being plunged into an alien situation is heightened by the fact that we're actually sat in a cramped, nondescript meeting room in a hotel.

But no—for the next hour we're in an isolated farmhouse in which the survivors are holed up and beginning to dare to believe that they might be able to build a life together. They don't know each other—they just happen to have all run in the same direction from the last zombie attack, and took shelter in the house together. But they make shaky efforts to get on.

Only this is tricky, with one of the women (Susanna Mulvihill) a fussy, faux-cheerful, mothering type who seems in complete denial about the cataclysmic state of affairs, and the other a dead-eyed teenager (Lynne Campbell) given to doomy pronouncements that cut far too painfully to the truth of their situation. The men are a difficult pair too: one (Iain Martin) constantly on edge, irritable and borderline-violent, and the other (Paul J Creegan) a well-meaning peacekeeper who is trying, and failing, to suppress his debilitating fear.

The play very interestingly explores the theme of survival tactics: its main concern, as you may guess, is not how you survive a zombie plague, but how you survive when thrown into close proximity with strangers with whom you must communicate and co-operate, or else.

The most interesting conversations are between the two women. The older woman, it turns out, has adopted a persona that she hopes makes her seem likeable and somewhat soft-headed and vulnerable, to inspire the protective instincts of others. It's seriously backfiring in the current context though.

The younger woman by contrast makes no effort at all to make herself socially acceptable, feeling that death is surely only ever round the corner and so attempts to form human bonds are surely pointless.

Then a stranger (Calum MacKaskill) comes into this small world that they have constructed. He's been with a stable group of people for a while, but a sudden attack surprised them and now he is the only survivor. But has he brought the virus with them…? He should be the potential source of fear; but it is he who is scared of them, at their appalling lack of human warmth towards each other, how they can't bring themselves to say each other's names, how they "dissolve in front of each other". His account of the group of people he was with before makes us consider that the tense, icy cold relationship between the survivors in the farmhouse is not an inevitability—it's their choice.

It's such an interesting spin on the genre, so tightly written and chilling in its plausibility. Humans are the real danger, is the gist of the message; potentially each other's salvation, but also potentially each other's poison. A real surprise, this excellent piece from a small company whose work I didn't previously know. It delivers one of the most compelling uses of an unpromising space, that you'll see anywhere at the festival this year.

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury