Quirky Dickheads Ruined William Burroughs' 100th Birthday Party
A night of "immersive theatre" in London just left me immersed in regret.
This year would have been William Burroughs' 100th birthday. He died in 1997 at the age of 83, which was still pretty good going for a man who spent the majority of his adult life treating his body like a pin cushion. While he wasn't travelling the world, trying new drugs or accidentally shooting his wife dead in a failed William Tell trick, he wrote books that are now sold next to Jack Kerouac's and Allen Ginsberg's, and read by every teenager who's outgrown Salinger and wants to look like a maverick on public transport.
Perhaps his most well-known is 1959's Naked Lunch, a chronicle of heroin visions that's partly set in the dreamlike "Interzone", an imagined city based on his experiences of living in Tangiers' lawless international zone after World War II. Parties in the Interzone tend to be pretty chastening affairs, where madmen "go about with a water pistol shooting jism up career women".
When I heard that something called Guerrilla Zoo was going to recreate one of these near the O2 Arena to celebrate Burroughs' birthday, I thought it would be impossible, owing to stuff like laws and common decency. But I didn't want to write them off without seeing it for myself first, so I got a ticket and went along.
VICE photographer Jake Lewis and I arrived in North Greenwich early. We hadn't been told where we were going, just that we’d be provided with transport. There were two men in silly hats waiting for us. "This way to Interzone!" they shouted, ushering us towards a waiting taxi.
We got in, along with a couple. Why were they there? "We’re dancers; we're involved in the show." Did they know anything about Burroughs? "Yes, he was a novelist, short story writer and painter," the woman replied. "He wrote 18 novels and novellas. The first was Junky, published in 1953." I asked her if she got all that from Wikipedia. "Yes," she said.
We still hadn't been told where we were going, but our taxi driver let it slip that he was going to drop us off at some paintball centre in Docklands called Bunker. I got the impression he’s not a fan of immersive theatre. But – going by the cheery look on his face – he is definitely a fan of getting paid to take idiots go to the middle of nowhere, in the cold, without any firm plans of how they’re going to get back again.
We arrived at Bunker to find this man, shouting: "Hands against the fucking wall!"
It became apparent that, if we wanted to party, we were first going to have to deal with some actors screaming at us for a while.
One of our group had made the mistake of wearing a hat. "Who do you think you are, Hatty Potter?" screamed the soldier, instantly reminding everyone that they were the audience in a live, unscripted piece of theatre. "You think that's funny, do you?" he shouted. No one was laughing.
Eventually we were spat out into the bunker's main room, where we found some kind of cyberpunk-steampunk-psytrance hybrid trying his best to be the worst person in the world. The paintball area had been covered in biohazard signs and the faint scent of patchouli oil hung in the air. The DJs were playing the kind of distorted, discordant music Judd Apatow might use to soundtrack a clip of Paul Rudd having a bad acid trip and I quickly realised why Burroughs sought out the sweet relief of smack oblivion.
It wasn't long before we were set upon by a roving actor with a gold-painted face. "It's OK," he said. "You don't really exist. We're all figments of our own imagination." He pushed a pamphlet into my hand that read: "Have you ever actually seen yourself and the rest of reality in the same room together?" I had no idea what it meant, but guessed that it meant very little.
I told him I agreed, and that ultimately our inevitable mortality renders all life meaningless to the point of non-existence. So he said: "You see, you don't really exist. We're all figments of our own imagination." It was a bit like standing near one of those extras in GTA who just cycle through the same few lines of dialogue over and over again until someone runs them over with a dune buggy.
We walked into a side room and found a dream machine, another guy with a gold face and a man in a fedora making out with someone. I wasn't sure whether it was part of the show.
The idea of the dream machine – invented by Burroughs, his "systems advisor" Ian Sommerville and artist Brion Gysin – is that it can induce hallucinations without the aid of any drugs. Only, what this party really, really needed – both for authenticity and general enjoyment – was some drugs.
At the far end of the bunker, there were a line of people waiting to get tribal face paint applied, and then three successive rooms to explore. In the first room, we had to make an appointment to see a doctor.
While we waited, we ducked into a Moroccan tearoom, where four typewriters were laid out on a table. I was invited to start typing, but as I tapped I quickly realised there was no ink in the machine. Unperturbed, a pretty girl in a red kimono leant over my shoulder to tell me that she could read what I was writing. "It's good," she insisted.
Soon, another girl appeared and handed me a card, telling me I should seek out her associate. The card read: "Interzone Incorporated." The whole mysterious, cryptic effect was dampened slightly by the Facebook symbol promoting "dreadfallstheatre" and the large "Easyprint" logo on the back.
Anyway, it was time for my doctor’s appointment. The man behind the desk was Dr Benway, one of Burroughs’ favourite creations. I put my hand out to shake his and he peered at it curiously, before setting off on an extended riff about whether my hand was working again since he "reattached it". I told him that it wasn’t OK at first, but now that it’s back on the proper side it was "alright". As hilarious as that piece of improv might sound on paper, he showed no sign of breaking character. I could tell this guy was a pro.
We did a bit of improvised patient-doctor stuff before he wrote, "No more downers. The only way is up!" on a sheet of paper above a prescription for "25mg Bug Powder". He then handed me a bag of sherbet.
The final room had the biggest queue of all. While we waited we were approached by a man who looked so uncannily like Peter Weller – the actor who played Burroughs' author-surrogate "William Lee" in the Naked Lunch film – that I worried the guy had fallen on seriously hard times and resorted to booking amateur theatre jobs in the Docklands. He was looking for the woman in the photograph, but we told him we hadn’t seen her, unless she’d lost quite a lot of her clothes and swapped Blitz parties for Munich's industrial sexclub scene...
And got into free bleeding after that 4Chan hoax :(
I'd been expecting another doctor, but when we finally got inside the last room, the man who introduced himself as Schindler explained that he was really more of a spirit guide. He improvised a bit more nonsense and handed me another fake bag of drugs, a brown paper envelope filled with popping candy. After the appointment, everyone who'd met with the spirit guide was blindfolded and led away.
When it came to my turn, Jake was explicitly forbidden from following me. Which was a shame, because what happened next was the best part of the night.
I was led into a backroom, still blindfolded. When my mask was removed, I was standing three inches from a reflection of my own face, surrounded by lots of beautiful people dressed as Amazonian gods and goddesses. They indicated that I should crawl into a tiny den, which of course I did, because tall, good-looking people holding candles have a strangely hypnotic power over me.
Inside, a shaman placed a large walnut between us and handed me a hammer. I smashed the walnut and the gods outside the den went wild. Soon, I was in the middle of a crowd, all of them jumping and cheering my deftness for smashing nuts.
When I was finally ushered back out into the party, I tried to tell everyone that the ritual was worth waiting for, but the queue was snaking towards the dancefloor and nobody seemed to think it could be worth the hassle. Which seems to be a central problem for this sort of night: create intimate individual experiences and it won’t feel like a party, but make it popular enough to feel like a party and the intimate things become a chore.
Back at Dr Benway’s, he’d given up dispensing sherbet and moved onto "operating" on his assistant, Sylvie. He shovelled white powder into her nose while fumbling around behind a curtain as she screamed in obvious displeasure. Before long, he popped his head up to tell us that "Sylvie has been a wonderful host", and "extracted" a pair of dripping, bloody balloons from inside her.
The party was really getting started!
Disappointingly, the dancefloor looked like this.
Out in the smoking area, I tried to get a sense of whether the night had lived up to whatever expectations people had come with. "It’s been interesting," one man told me. "I knew it was William S Burroughs-themed, and although that seems to have gone out the window, it’s good. It’s pleasant."
"It’s disappointingly under-populated, dear boy," added a man in a bowler hat. "I promised my friends an unusual evening, and at least I delivered that. We could have been eating steak and drinking wine, and instead we’re dancing to industrial techno and country and western."
I get the feeling this man in the painters uniform was eavesdropping, as he instantly rushed over, placed a cup on my head and offered to perform the William Tell trick on me. Impressively, he shot it straight off (it seemed a little pedantic to point out that, if he was trying to add to the authenticity of the evening, he really should have killed me).
At that point, it seemed like we’d exhausted the Interzone, but I remembered I still had a card that I was supposed to give to "an associate".
Somewhere past a big plastic spider web we found a curtained room, behind which a nightmarish woman with an orifice for a face exchanged my card for an explanation of the true meaning of Interzone.
Except that didn’t happen, because they’d shut up shop at midnight. Instead, we just walked in on a group of people drinking beers and cups of tea. One of them gave us a quick demonstration of what the vagina face mask would have looked like if we’d got there on time.
By this point, everyone else was cutting their losses and heading back into town. Jake and I decided to beat the rush for the taxis and ended up sharing a cab with a boy with long hair, who, having been told he couldn't smoke in the car, offered us all a bump of ketamine. Another night entirely started from there – one that I imagine Burroughs may have enjoyed far more.
This article was corrected at 1.31PM on Tuesday, 25th February because we got Burroughs' age of death wrong.