This play imagines a future without electricity – but with The Simpsons
I once saw a theatrical adaptation of the Beatles song ‘I Am the Walrus’ at Melbourne University, and I remember it being very bad. I don’t mention it to shame the wonderfully ambitious students who mounted it, but to underline a point about memory and the infinite mutability of cultural forms: it doesn’t matter if the culture is high or low; it only matters what we do with it, how we imbue it with meaning. Anne Washburn’s play Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play, turns on this very idea, as a group of survivors of an apocalypse gather around a fire and attempt to recount an episode of The Simpsons.
The episode is Cape Feare, which is largely a parody of Martin Scorsese’s remake of the Robert Mitchum film, Cape Fear. This is a good choice, because it’s already a cannibalistic piece of pop culture that draws in – as every episode of The Simpsons did – myriad references to other works, most notably Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S Pinafore. The survivors bond over this communal recollection, or maybe just keep the fear and despair at bay. When an outsider, Gibson (Mark Yeates) arrives, they all draw their weapons, but when it turns out he can help them with some choice lines from the ep, he quickly becomes embraced by the group.
Washburn has plenty on her mind in this first act, but then ups the ante in the second, which is set seven years later and sees the survivors transformed into a kind of travelling theatre troupe, taking their Simpsons episode on the road. The play becomes a backstage drama, as they bicker about directorial decisions and artistic merit. But the wider world is increasingly intrusive, where lines from the show are traded and bartered in a physical manifestation of the idea of cultural capital. Soon survival becomes less about nuclear fallout and radiation contamination, and more about who gets to tell the story.
The third act is set 75 years later again, and is best kept under wraps. Suffice to say, what was once a means of forgetting the horrors of the world has morphed into something ritualistic and pedagogical; a high cultural artefact that resembles a mass more than a cartoon. With each transformation through time, Washburn layers meanings on top of each other just like a palimpsest, where earlier meanings are still visible underneath new ones. So we can see the Greek theatre underneath the morality plays of the middle ages; we can see Robert Mitchum’s performance in The Night of the Hunter underneath Kelsey Grammer’s fruity take on Sideshow Bob. It’s not exactly radical, because it’s exactly how we read modern culture, but it sure is head spinning trying to keep up.
Director John Kachoyan has an ambitious, unwieldy play on his hands and for the most part he keeps a tight grip on it. He creates a beautiful tone of loss in the opening act, which lends the play a plaintiveness it might otherwise have lacked. Sophie Woodward’s set and costumes are often terrifically effective but they are also burdensome and bulky, which slows down a play that is already too long – most noticeably in act two. Richard Vabre’s lighting is wondrous and clever, moving from the organic to the orgiastic with a wealth of ingenuity.
The performances are terrific for the most part. Yeates is particularly strong in a number of roles and Dylan Watson impresses throughout. Emma Choy makes for a surprisingly moving Bart and Hannah Greenwood makes a truly monstrous Itchy. A couple of the actors simply need to be louder; there’s something almost timid about the vocal delivery, overall. But damn it, they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the production’s considerable physical demands, an echo of the characters’ desperation. Their acts of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction serve as a beautiful metaphor for the theatre itself.
It’s this that makes Mr Burns finally such an inspiring and optimistic work; that desperation is a life-force, and the need to tell stories, to enact and adapt them, is ultimately a life-affirming one. It makes for an interesting companion piece to Annie Baker’s The Antipodes, which in its own way imagined a kind of apocalypse of the story-telling urge. Both plays ask profound questions about the ways our societies utilise and adopt the narrative impulse, and both use popular culture as a telescope that looks forward as well as back. Maybe that production of I Am the Walrus wasn’t as bad as I remember. (Only kidding, it was terrible.) But Washburn suggests that even that may still have a life to come.
The original February and March season of Mr Burns has now sold out. A short return season has been announced for May, and tickets are now on sale.