An episode of The Simpsons provides the jumping off point for an exhilarating treatise in the human urge to tell stories
It’s impossible to imagine an audience member who is not thoroughly charmed by Belvoir’s production of Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns – so long as they were born before, say, 1970. The narrative is peppered with pop cultural Easter eggs, and while you don’t have to understand them all, you do have to be somewhat au fait with The Simpsons.
The setting is a post-apocalyptic America (or: ‘post-electric’) in which a small fraction of the population has survived nuclear disaster and the ensuing anarchy. Washburn pitches camp with a small group of survivors: Matt (played here by musical theatre’s Brent Hill), Jenny (Esther Hannaford), Colleen (Jude Henshall), Maria (Jacquy Phillips) and Sam (Ezra Juanta). As the play opens, they’re passing time drinking stream-cooled beers and sodas around a bin fire, and trying to collectively reassemble and re-tell the ‘Cape Feare’ episode from Season Five of The Simpsons (itself a spoof of Martin Scorsese’s 1991 re-do of the 1962 film Cape Fear), in which Sideshow Bob is released from prison and sets out to kill his longtime nemesis Bart.
It’s an entirely comforting scene – until a sound from the darkness startles the group into pulling their hitherto concealed firearms. Violence (or the threat of violence) is never far away in Washburn’s play, and becomes a frequent reminder that physical survival and the urge to tell stories are not so disparate on the ladder of human needs.
The second act, in which storytelling becomes a literal act of survival, takes us seven years into the future, where the same group of survivors (with a couple of additions) have formalised their storytelling into a travelling theatre troupe who perform a repertoire of Simpsons episodes, complete with self-devised live ‘commercials’. The third act takes us a further 75 years into the future, and consists of a 40-minute musical (with a score by Michael Friedman).
The brilliance of Washburn’s play – albeit one that relies on the audience’s familiarity with the pop culture references – is that she draws the audience right into the action from the get go: as Matt, Jenny et al fumble their way through the episode, you find yourself almost wanting to yell out and correct them on certain points, insert yourself into the action. It’s the storytelling urge in practice.
That involvement extends through to the final of the three acts, as you find yourself watching a musical theatre version of the episode, distorted and augmented by 82 years of cultural transmission, and taking delight in the familiar reference points (which range from Gilbert and Sullivan to Britney Spears, Eminem and Lady Gaga) and archetypes. Part of the power of storytelling, this play reminds us, is the delight of the familiar. We keep telling the same stories over and over, remixing and re-hashing and layering, for a reason.
Mr Burns is also, more explicitly, about the way stories shift over time to respond to the social circumstances in which they exist. In the first act, Sideshow Bob is the villain of ‘Cape Feare’; by the final act, nuclear power-plant honcho Mr Burns has taken the villain’s part – and the episode has become an allegory for surviving a nuclear apocalypse.
Imara Savage has directed this Australian premiere as a coproduction between the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Belvoir, and as a consequence – and also the fact that every player in this show must be able to sing – the cast is comprised largely of faces unfamiliar to Belvoir audiences (with the exception of stalwarts Paula Arundell and Mitchell Butel). This allows you to suspend disbelief and become involved in the group antics just a little more easily. It also distracts, at times, from a script that labours a little far in scenes when it could be tightened.
The design (by Jonathan Oxlade) and tone of each act in this production successfully takes us on the journey through the history of storytelling that Washburn has designed: from lo-fi oral tradition (Act 1) to the heightened realism of TV (Act 2), to the super-sized, stylised and supercharged catharsis of modern blockbuster entertainment (Act 3). Because the world of the play doesn’t have electricity, the aesthetic throughout becomes a tribute to the makeshift charms of theatre.
Mr Burns is a play about memory and imagination, storytelling and cultural transmission; about pop culture, the Postmodern erosion of high/low culture, and the hyperactive memification and acts of pastiche that an internet age has facilitated. It’s a love letter to The Simpsons, on one level, but a more passionate love letter to the communal act and experience of theatre. In fact, Washburn wrote the play in response to 9/11, and as an examination of what the role of the artist is in times of crisis. This production is an uplifting answer.