INTERVIEW: Tama Phethean, ‘Night of the Living Dead Live!

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Tama Phethean, ‘Night of the Living Dead Live!’

  On Saturday 1st October, 1968, American independent film ‘Night of the Living Dead’ premiered at the Fulton Theatre, Pittsburgh, an afternoon showing. Though viewers had seen horror films before, according to film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, “this was something else”. Something nobody saw coming, and were entirely unprepared for.

  Five years after it’s premiere, however, George A. Romero’s film had become the “most profitable horror film ever… produced outside the walls of a major studio”. Now, fifty years after its release, the film has achieved ‘classic’ status and, described as ‘one of the most influential releases of all time’, the film was selected by the Library of Congress in 1999 for preservation in the National Film Registry, as a filmed deemed to be ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’.

  Hoping to satisfy the film industry’s ‘thirst for the bizarre’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ proved revolutionary in placing comedy and horror on the same continuum.

  The ‘original zombie masterpiece’, the film was ranked by Empire Magazine as number 357 on their list of ‘The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time’ (2008).

  A launching pad for horror, the story is reanimated for the stage for the first time ever in ‘Night of the Living Dead Live’.

  Based on Romero’s iconic film, with direction by Benji Sperring, the stage adaptation is written by Christopher Bond, Dale Boyer and Trevor Martin, created by Christopher Harrison and Phil Pattison, and presented by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment and Ollie Rosenblatt for Senbla, by special arrangement with Samuel French Ltd.

  The only production to be officially authorised by the Romero Estate, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero (Founder and Chair of The George A. Romero Foundation and wife of the late director), exclaims, “How super exciting that Night of the Living Dead will be in London. Romero loved London night and day and now London will enjoy Night! Stay Scared!”.

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Tama Phethean for Night of the Living Dead. Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

 

‘A bunch of strangers are holed up in a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania.
Hoards of the undead are approaching.
Who will make it out alive?’

 

  I spoke to actor Tama Phethean ahead of his performance in the show.

  For those not familiar with the story, Tama explains that “Night of the Living Dead was a film from 1968 written by George A. Romero, who has since been hailed the father of zombie cult fiction; he redefined horror at that time. It’s about five strangers who meet in a farmhouse that’s surrounded by zombies, and the film is basically about them trying to discuss how best to escape”.

  Tama will certainly be kept on his toes throughout the production, which sees him take on the roles of four characters – Tom, Johnny, Bill, and Vince. He explains, “My main character in the farmhouse is Tom. Tom is the young, wide-eyed, idealistic, all-American boy, I suppose. He is desperate to be liked. It’s such a high-stakes situation, there are lots of opinions flying around, there’s lots of tension, and Tom really just wants to try and ease that tension and get everyone on board with each other”. Tama is also playing Johnny, brother to Barbara, and news reporter Bill, in addition to Vince, a local volunteer seeking employment in law enforcement. “He just really wants to try and help solve this case of how they might all have died, and how they might have survived as well”. The four roles ensure that for Tama, there is “lots of running around backstage!”.

  The production features the iconic scenes from the 1968 film that fans will be all too familiar with, with some surprises in store. Tama tells us that “the first act is very similar to the film. All of the key scenes are played out in the first act. They’re almost verbatim – by that I mean the exact same lines from the film script. So you’ve got all the key scenes in the first act, and then the second is slightly different, it’s a ‘what if?’ situation. There’s an entirely new journey in the second act, but I don’t want to give too much away. I want people to come and see it”.

  As a result of this exciting merging of the old and the new, the stage adaptation successfully caters for both hardcore fans of the film, whilst paving the way for new audiences unfamiliar with the story. According to Tama, “it’s a wonderful homage to the original film. The design is all in monochrome, so the set and the costumes, and all the characters, will being black and white, and all the blood will be black, so it’s going to look amazing. All your favourite lines are in there, all the classic lines from the film, so I think for all the hardcore fans, it’s definitely going to be one to watch. But also, because the second act changes into something else, I think it should just be quite a nice night out for people who aren’t necessarily into the film, but want to come and see some cool theatre”.

 

“it’s a wonderful homage to the original film”

 

  The film is listed as ‘skirting the line between the horrific and the hysterical’, and I asked Tama how the production captures a balance between horror and humour, between the funny and the frightening. “That’s what we’re trying to work out in rehearsals at the moment”, he states, “how do we create suspense and tension, and then break it with a laugh, and build it back up again? I think in both cases, it’s about playing the truth of the situation. If something’s scary, be scared. I suppose it’s difficult to play the truth of comedy, but you know, I think there are moments, because we’re playing the truth of the horror, the comedy moments shine through. They’re very obvious, so I think that will be a light relief for the audience”.

  Though referred to as ‘ghouls’ in Romero’s classic film (the term ‘zombie’ is not actually used),  I asked Tama about these reanimated beings, and what they might represent (given that fan theories on the subject are rife). Tama suggests that they feature “in the wider picture of being something to do with the cultural situation in America at the time. You’ve got five different people from completely different backgrounds in this house, and the zombies force them to come together, and try and sort something out. So it’s almost like they are this bigger power that allows people to engage with each other, on a socio-political level. And also, they are zombies!”.

  The seating for audiences will be split for this production. Audience members can choose to get amongst the gore in one of the show’s on-stage seats – ‘Splatter Zone One’ – or they can keep the zombie’s at an arm’s length by opting for a ‘Supposedly Safe Zone’.

  Tama reveals that, should you choose to sit in a splatter zone, “you are much nearer the action… There might be a little bit of debris, maybe a little splatter of blood here and there. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but if people fancy a challenge, I’d jump in the splatter zone. I’d say the hardcore fans should definitely be in the splatter zone. And perhaps the people who just want to watch a nice piece of theatre, who are not so much into their horror, opt for the safe zone. I’ll be telling my mum to sit in the safe zone, put it that way!”.

 

“I’ll be telling my mum to sit in the safe zone, put it that way!”

 

  Romero’s film ‘redefined the genre of the modern horror film’, so I spoke to Tama about whether ‘Night of the Living Dead Live’ could spawn a new demand for horror in theatre. “Horror, especially zombie horror, is really making a resurgence in the arts at the moment. It’s one of those cultural fantasies, (or nightmares, depending on how you look at it!) that seems to come around all the time, and right now, it seem hot. I think we’ve really tapped into something cool here, and yes, I do think that it could spawn a resurgence in horror in theatre at the moment. There’s not too much horror about is there? ‘The Woman in Black’ is the only thing I can think of that is out and out scary. I think that theatre is a great medium for horror, because it’s live. With a film, you’re in the safety of your own home, whereas in the theatre, the characters are live, so that gives a 4D element. I think it’s a wicked medium for horror. I’d love to see more”.  

 

“theatre is a great medium for horror”

 

  In addition to the show’s combination of horror and comedy, it also exposes issues that commonly go hand-in-hand with race, class division, and national identity, and specifically for this show, the American national identity. Tama speaks about why such topics are still so relevant, 50 years after the film’s release: “All over the world, we are still struggling. America especially, when you look at who’s in charge, and how he’s trying to go about some of his work, building walls, dividing people here and there. Even though this is set so far back, I still think we struggle with race issues, I still think we struggle with classist issues, I still think we struggle with national identity. I think that putting a film that is set in 1968, and staging it now, in 2019, and the fact that those main issues are still relevant, I think it’s really important to keep bringing that up. We haven’t beaten any of these issues, we are still struggling, and the fact that something so old is still relevant now, I think is appalling, in many ways, and it’s good that any TV show or piece of theatre is putting that stuff on, so we can try and eradicate that”.

  As the show comes to London for the first time ever, I asked Tama if UK audiences are ready. And, the question that I’m sure will be on many people’s lips, just how scary is it? “I’m hoping that it’s going to be pretty scary. But then there’s a nice twist in it. If you’re not into horror, I would still say come, because it twists in a way that is accessible to all. And if you ARE into horror, then also come. I hope the UK is ready. I’m interest the see the reactions, for sure!”.

 

“I hope the UK is ready!”

 

 And of course, what more suitable way to conclude the interview than to ask Tama what he would do in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Unsurprisingly, it was not the first time he had been asked this question.

  “We discussed this on the first day of rehearsals. I’m not a particularly good fighter, I don’t think, but I’d use my brain, excuse the pun. What I would do is cover myself in zombie gore, because I think they can smell human, so what I’d do is I would cover myself in bits of zombie so they didn’t bother me. I’d carry a weapon with me, something small, like a pocket knife… just in case, but my main objective would be to get somewhere where there is access to food, cover myself in gore, and then hopefully wait it out, until it finishes. Somewhere where there are lots of doors as well, so that I can always get out – like a supermarket!”. Next time you’re doing the weekly shop, be sure to keep an eye open.

 

 ‘Night of the Living Dead Live‘ runs at Pleasance, London from 9th April to 19th May 2019. Tickets available at www.LivingDeadLondon.com

 

They’re coming to get you, London!

 

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The cast of Night of the Living Dead. Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

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