The last weekend of the Fringe is a time when it is customary to try to frantically mop up some of the plays that you have overlooked. With JD Henshaw’s “subsist,” though, at Sweet Grassmarket, things are slightly different. I have a dim memory of being unfairly deprived of this play at a previous Fringe – of it being sold out and of me feeling sore about it. When I check this, I learn that “subsist” had been shown at the 2011 and 2015 Fringes. So this review that you’re about to read would have really rung bells and stampeded all of the horses back in 2011, or 2015.
“subsist” is no longer new writing and it consequently feels like it has a rather energyless tried-and-tested slickness to it. As if it has passed a point where they cannot make any more tiny adjustments to it and it is stagnantly perfect. Still, I am an eternal student of horror at the Fringe and this play is many years overdue my attention. It observes interludes of relaxation and reflection during an ongoing zombie apocalypse. It is set in an abandoned house where four strangers, a man and three women, are hiding from the exuberant flesh-eaters.
I have never rejoiced in zombies – there are usually too many cosmetics and prosthetics involved and not enough psychological horror. I cannot honestly think of a single zombie-themed book or movie that I have ever been in thrall to (the “army of the dead” are to me, for example, the least interesting component of Game of Thrones). Yet “subsist” finds a sharp new angle on the zombie apocalypse or a radical enhancement to its power.
This is essentially the existential discomfort of interacting with people who could presently become zombies. The characters in “subsist” know that, in a few hours’ time, they could be staving each other’s heads in or being chewed upon by each other. They must all appear unbearably fragile in each other’s eyes. And in this, they are experiencing a paranoia so exotic that we are likely to only ever share it in a story such as this one.
Tellingly, none of the characters have names. They seem to have agreed to stop using names, as a way of holding each other at a necessary distance. Being the only available man left at the end of the world, along with three helpless and appreciative women, is a timeless sexual fantasy, but the man here is in no condition to contemplate physical intimacy (the zombification is, in any case, linked to a bodily “infection”). Each of these characters is clearly in some far-flung stage of trauma. They each drop brief, awful allusions to how they had seen their loved ones warped into the ghoulish automata. One woman labours to “keep smiling through” – the other is dolefully philosophical – but the play never exerts itself into trying to squeeze laughs out of this. The crisis is always too immediate.
At one point, the zombies are pounding steadily on the walls of the house. The resulting horror is simplistic but still hugely effective. It is hard not to feel authentically alarmed, even though we are fully aware from the outset that this play is never going to show the zombies. We increasingly sense that the character who is most likely to survive has discreetly evolved in response to them. Indeed, she surpasses the zombies in being three-dimensionally evil or both evil and conscious. The question becomes whether it is more dangerous to be outside with the zombies or inside with her.
It would be cheap for me to end with a zombie metaphor but such a metaphor would theoretically go something like, “this play is back from the dead after eight Fringes but it is by no means stinking.” I cannot procure the names of the cast for this latest production, though I think that a Dundee actress, Lynne Martin, might yet number amongst them. The cast’s names are welcome in the comments area below if anybody wishes to submit them.