This Thursday 23rd, I’m chairing It’s Vauxhall Question Time –…
In June 2016, I threw myself into an immersive theatre piece staged in an abandoned shopping mall in Reading. The theme? Contagious killers, zombies and savage bandits roam a dystopia created by a viral pandemic. At the time, I thought the fantasy was entirely possible. And now we are living it.
On first learning of Zed events’ Wasteland Experience- an immersive live-action fantasy of an anarchic apocalypse, it was hard not to feel there’s no need for such follies when we’re already living in it.
Current existence is a creeping dystopia. Almost dreary in its digital surveillance and technological advances. The Wasteland Experience offers a chance to it take to the next level- a frightening future that might be round the corner. The ‘vision’ is one of armed, marauding gangs, scratching around in the rubble of capitalism, warped by bioterrorism and losing battle with a resistant virus. It’s scary, because it’s entirely possible.
The Wasteland Experience is housed in a defunct shopping precinct in Reading. A Saturday morning swish for a Costa and a Greggs pasty, led my friend to observe, ‘We are already IN the zombie apocalypse’.
There’s an understandable level of secrecy surrounding the Wasteland Experience details. Surprise, incremental anxiety and a lack of data adds to the thrill of the ride. When we were hustled into a concrete corridor and given a health and safety brief, it was hard to suppress a suspicion that signing up to this might prove a traumatic and potentially fatal mistake.
There was talk of abandoned lift shafts that could be tumbled into. Uneven flooring to trip on. A ruptured roof to fall through. Lastly, they spoke of a widespread black darkness that could only be punctured by infa-red torches on replica AK47 rifles.
‘If I don’t die of a heart attack, I’ll break my neck,’ I thought, nodding vaguely to fire exit procedures. There were stern warnings not to abuse the actors, ‘physically or verbally’. Even if they’re wearing a raggedy slaughtered pig mask while whistling nursery rhymes and coming at you with a knife? This mise en scène had yet to materialize, but it was totally coming my way.
Zed Events staff explained in yawnsome detail how the guns worked; various settings for the number of rounds discharged, the process for changing the magazine and how much ammunition we’d have at our disposal. This bored me and irritated in equal measure.
Nothing makes my eyes roll harder than bants about military hardware or team activities. At this juncture, my friend became mildly terrified. He didn’t warm to the 70% darkness they kept mentioning. This didn’t cheer me either, but rather than concede and dash for the door, I claimed it would be fun. Besides, we couldn’t justify trekking to Reading on a Saturday morning for NOTHING. We’d reached Armageddon. No going back now.
Suddenly, we were pushed into a room with an actor who whipped us into a frenzy with a story about the apocalyptic state of the country. They shouted about a mission which involved combing the abandoned shopping centre for survivors, while looking out for unspecified enemies. We were warned ‘it might be hard to identify good from bad, so you should think before shooting’. A lack of enthusiasm found me dawdling at the back of the group. This strategy proved unwise, as my position at the rear led to a heinous task being foisted onto my padded shoulders.
The mission leader asked me to shout, ’Last man!’ every time we walked through a doorway.
‘Every doorway? I asked incredulously. We’d been through four in the first 5 minutes and this seemed like a lot of heavy lifting.
‘For FUCK’S sake YES!’ our corporal snapped, utterly furious, eyes bulging at my idiocy.
‘Last man!’ I screeched, after gingerly mincing through a doorway.
‘NOT THAT FUCKING LOUD,’ our leader hissed in frustration. ‘You want to get us all killed?!’
‘Possibly,’ I thought to myself, warming to the role of useless gay. She became VERY concerned that my failure to understand basic tasks meant my mere presence was a liability to both myself AND our band of dystopian guerillas. While assuring her that I was up to the task, I accidentally fired my rifle into the floor. Ooops.
She gave me a long lecture on wasting ammo. The rest of the group looked on anxiously, some of them eyeing me with a rabid disgust that suggested they thought this was actually real. At this point, my careworn cynicism began to fade and a determination to search for the hero inside of myself began to rise. A switch had been flicked. I was IN the game.
It would be churlish to reveal what we experienced for the next 90 minutes. Nobody wants to spoil a plot, but it involved lots of running around. We also had to witness a succession of vignettes that ranged from disturbing hostage situations to explosive Mad Max-like shoot outs.
There’s no denying it was massive, exhausting fun. It’s hard not be a puppet to the human cocktail of survival instinct, fear and adrenaline. You know it’s a game, but you don’t wanna get shot. You know they’re an actor, but they’re howling and dripping in blood.
My friend, who almost dropped out in a fit of anxiety, underwent an alarming transformation. He became a swivel eyed killer. Unprompted, he’d run ahead into dark, empty retail outlets, sweeping his rifle round like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Where did he even learn to act like that? Where had my sensitive, God-bothering sister gone? This unlikely transformation was almost as shocking as the man with a teddy bear head who chased me through a dusty, sun streaked glass atrium with a grinding, rusty chainsaw.
If nothing else, the Wasteland Experience was a way of getting a glimpse into psychological shadows. Would you only shoot in self defence? How would you feel after killing an innocent civilian? Could you ditch a hostage to save yourself? Might you fire bullets into corpse, just because you could? My answers? No, briefly irritated, yes and hell yes.
Surprisingly, the darkness proved less chilling than the inescapable daylight. Empty department stores are creepy, haunted mazes of shadows. Dusty, soft carpets. Stepping out of the gloom was hyperreal and unnerving. Sunlight poured through the grimy atrium of the derelict shopping centre and the hollow shops hummed with decay. In that moment, I believed the narrative, the visuals and vibe was overwhelming. It felt like the world had died.
Even the graffiti had faded with age. It was like street culture had died with the rest of humanity. Also, when someone chases you with a massive serrated knife, it’s far worse in bright daylight. The clarity was horrific.
I screamed loudly and laughed often. It was one of most unique and thrilling trips I’ve ever taken.