The Garden of Earthly Delights: an ineffable SXSW experience

The apocalypse started in Austin not with a bang, but with a wine dispensing tree. The Garden of Earthly Delights, a SXSW activation, kicked off the end of days with an out of this world celebration of Amazon Prime’s “Good Omens” – a series based on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 novel “Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.”

From May 8 -11, the “secret” garden was a refuge from the imminent end-of-all-things where guests were prompted to choose Heaven or Hell upon entering. In the center, looming over 20 feet tall, stood a tree that served wine and beer from its trunk and prophecies from its apples.

Susannah Crowell, an actress playing a demon – or perhaps the other way around – coaxed guests to join her in Hell. “I would ask them which way do you want to go? Hell has puppies,” Crowell said, “and the bathrooms. That was important.”

The puppy pen was a popular attraction in the bowels of the Garden’s Hell. In “Good Omens,” the Antichrist adores his hellhound, aptly named Dog. It’s only fitting that Hell had puppies, a true temptation. In addition to the puppies and demons, Hell hosted a hair salon, a 1926 black Bentley, and chicken wings.

The activation was brought to life by the devilishly talented actors in full apocalyptic garb interacting with guests. Crowell said, “It was a blast! They did me up in fake boils and disgusting makeup. It was an interesting experience to see an amazing team pushing the model of what an interactive experience is.”

Throughout Heaven and Hell alike were iPads with reality augmenting apps. “You would stand by a wall and wings would sprout out from behind you, or books would come to life,” Crowell said. After all, the Garden was a professionally curated immersive experience designed to be shared.

Photo credit Caleb Pickens

On the other side of the Garden, draped in white and serving sushi, Heaven offered live music and a bookstore riddled with Easter eggs from the novel. A myriad of performers, from sword swallowers to string quartets, graced the stage and performed as if their life depended on it, which it might have.

Adrienne Banks, Sienna Quartet cellist, played pop music’s greatest hits on the mainstage during the event. “Lots of people came and sat in the seats to listen to us. I was surprised how into it they were,” Banks said, “I’m not used to playing outside for so long with so many people listening. It was exhausting.”

According to the “Good Omens” novel, “All tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.” Having Satan communicate almost exclusively through the voice of Freddie Mercury developed an interesting soundtrack for the series. For a quartet like Sienna that is challenging the traditional string quartet genre, the Garden was a heaven-sent opportunity.

“From a musical perspective, how focused everyone was on our music was the best part for me,” Banks said, “We got amazing feedback and our Lady Gaga hit list was very popular with the crowd. If felt like we were propelling string music out of its box.”

The Sienna quartet, clad in perfectly angelic white, played the pop hits of Heaven for hours interrupted by the occasional apocalypse. Banks said, “Every 30 minutes, there’d be a thunder crash and they’d parade the puppies on stage behind me.”

“And we’d have to freeze for that ‘apocalypse’ and pretend like nothing was happening,” Crowell added.

“It was very distracting,” Banks said.

The stars of the show, David Tennant, Michael Sheen, John Hamm, and author Gaiman himself paid a visit to the Garden. Crowell said, “David Tennant walked up to me dressed as an L.A. hipster, looked me up and down and said ‘very accurate’. I didn’t recognize who he was at the time. I offered the real Crowley a picture with me.”

With the interactive iPad photos and the real-life angels and demons walking around, the Garden was an immersive experience like no other. From Aziraphale’s bookstore to Crowley’s Bentley, fans of the book were simply amazed by the detail and scale of it all. “It was another world for adults made especially for them,” Crowell said, “It’s right there in the flesh for you. A literal Disney World.”

The Amazon Prime series is set to premiere at the end of the month on May 31. Although the apocalypse is ineffably nigh, “Good Omens” is prepared to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if it may not eff it after all.


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