Zombie Thoughts | National Theatre of Parramatta

Image by Noni Carroll

When life throws up choices, it can be difficult even for the best of us to choose the right path and overcome challenges. Add anxiety into the mix and every decision gets harder again. In Zombie Thoughts, the audience plays through the experience of living with anxiety with the characters of Sam and Pig as they attempt to defeat their biggest fears.

The main character Sam and his sidekick Pig (played alternately by Emma O’Sullivan and Jose Talite) live inside the video game at the whim of the Voice (Monica Sayers) but they are controlled by the choices made by the audience. Throughout each level, they do their best but Sam’s fears get in the way of them defeating each enemy. Eventually Sam’s anxiety becomes so overwhelming that he has to use breathing exercises and distraction techniques to keep himself focused to defeat the final boss.

When playwright Oliver Kokai-Means was growing up, his anxiety made everyday tasks difficult and he wasn’t receiving adequate support from people around him who didn’t understand his mental health issues. Zombie Thoughts, co-written with Jennifer A Kokai, was an opportunity to illustrate what living with anxiety feels like as well as providing coping techniques to anyone who might also be suffering. Here, life is reframed as a video game with “choose your own adventure” elements and the catastrophic thinking of anxiety becomes battle levels where characters attempt to defeat zombies, vampire bats, and the great void. The narrative is a clear-cut, direct metaphor for anxiety with practical and useful information for audiences old and young all wrapped up in a fun and playful video game format.

Direction from Warwick Doddrell kept the production loose and easy which deconstructed the typical barrier between audience and performers and allowed audiences, especially the younger ones, to connect with the characters and their challenging situations. Equally, the performances were natural and adapted well to the energy of the audience. O’Sullivan as Pig was charming and effervescent with a bubbly and very funny presence on stage. Talite as Sam drew audiences in with his vulnerability in portraying fear as well as his believable strength to overcome those fears and beat the game. Their dynamic as best friends was warm and supportive which was additionally heartwarming to see portrayed for young audiences.

Translating a video game to stage is quite a task but the production design of Zombie Thoughts was impressive for the seamless integration of digital and physical elements that created an engaging immersive world. The set design by Isabella Andronos incorporated a pyramid of Mine Craft style boxes from which zombie hands burst forth while the lighting design by Jasmine Rizk used led strips and ground lighting to play with shadow and smoke to build out a full world. But it wouldn’t be a video game without the pixelated lo-fi stylings of the 90s as represented in Xiang Lin’s animated projections which illustrated the virtual aspects of Sam and Pig’s exploits. Combined with David Bergman’s sound design, the nostalgic video game aesthetic was great fun and really added to the encompassing atmosphere of the production.

Whichever metaphor you choose, dealing with the cards you’re dealt or the character traits you’re programmed with, navigating tricky choices is part of learning and living. Like with Sam and Pig, understanding yourself and supporting each other is all it takes to get through to the next level.

Zombie Thoughts ran at Riverside Theatre from May 29th – June 5th

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