Bear Grylls would be so pissed off: in US playwright Anne Washburn’s bracingly idiosyncratic play, the survivors of a non-specific North American apocalypse don’t salvage food or weapons from the rubble, but culture. And when I say ‘culture’, I mean popular cartoon ‘The Simpsons’. And when I say ‘The Simpsons’, I mean sublime 1993 episode ‘Cape Feare’.
‘Mr Burns’ is divided into three interlinked but drastically contrasting sequences. The first, set during the disaster – the inference is it’s some sort of pandemic – sees a ragtag band of nervous survivors huddle around a campfire and attempt to distract themselves from the horror by recounting the plot of said Simpsons episode (fyi a real corker, a loving and hilarious homage to classic thriller ‘Cape Fear’).
It’s an odd but compelling set-up: the 40-minute act could almost be a stoner comedy, as this band of misfits – all of them subdued and nervous apart from Adrian der Gregorian’s Matt, who is loud and nervous – stumble and bicker over the exact details of the plot, while various asides and divergences fill us in on the horrors that have taken place away from this cosy fire.
In part two, set seven years later, society has regressed following the failure of America’s power plants: the gang from the first scene now make a living acting out old ‘Simpsons’ episodes for paying audiences, along with medleys of popular ’00s hits. And in the third sequence, set another 75 years on… not to spoil it, but things have gotten really very strange.
Washburn’s play is pretty out there in many respects, but each scenario is beautifully realised, and it presents a compelling query: faced with uncertainty, would we salvage what’s ‘important’ for the human race? Or what comforts us? And is there really a difference?
Director Robert Icke wisely keeps things as naturalistic as possible within the escalatingly batshit confines of the text, and there are beautiful, frail performances from a fine ensemble.
There is also a lot of deadpan humour here, and there’s no getting away from the fact that you’ll find ‘Mr Burns’ infinitely more amusing if you get the multitudinous pop-cultural references (I was practically wetting myself when a repurposed snipped of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ emerged at the end, but the same could not be said of the venerable gentleman next to me).
But even if you’ve somehow never seen a frame of ‘The Simpsons’ (though seriously, have a word with yourself), the bold vistas of Washburn’s imagination are thrillingly provocative in themselves. By the end, the audacity of ‘Mr Burns’ has outstripped its profundity, but its message is ultimately a comforting one: just like cockroaches and Twinkies, theatre and stories will survive the end of days, no matter how strangely.