Other interpretations here:
Warning: this review is both ridden with spoilers and far too much like an essay to entice anyone to actually read it.
At 6pm everyday, on BBC 2 (then Channel 4 – stupid ad breaks) I and my brothers and sister and all my friends and everyone I can think of who went to school within the last 20 years sat down with our tea and watched The Simpsons. Every episode is ingrained in our memories like Homer in an Athenian schoolboy’s. Mr Burns is not a play to provoke middling views. It may be alienating to those less well-versed in a cultural frame of reference that includes The Simpsons, Britney Spears and Daft Punk. But it seems churlish that the haters have not really tried to engage with the play critically when it has quite a colossal amount to offer. Every detail – script, acting, design, music – is minutely considered and perfectly pitched. Anne Washburn’s script has come over from New York to the Almeida, directed by Robert Icke (who’s already got credit in the bank from his adaptation of 1984).
Act 1: lights flicker, a whining generator powers down. There is almost complete darkness. 5 figures huddle around a campfire. They try to remember an episode of The Simpsons, the one where Sideshow Bob tries to kill Bart and then steps on all the rakes and then Bart gets him to sing the whole of HMS Pinafore to buy time. A woman is curled at the side of the stage, unmoving. A noise from behind the audience sets them on edge and they shine torches and point guns at us. Another man, Gibson, appears who insists “I’m ok”. They grill him about where he’s been, what he’s seen. His answers do not make sense: “I didn’t see any women,” he says, “not even a lot of bodies”. It’s not funny anymore – they’re not camping, they’re not on holiday. They are in a postlapsarian wasteland where a series of nuclear meltdowns has cut off all electricity.
Each character is allowed to give Gibson 10 names, family and friends, to see if he’s encountered them on his journey, to see if they are still alive. This is like an analogue Facebook, seeking mutual friends and contact in a world without electricity.
Gibson helps them remember more about the Simpsons episode, called Cape Feare. The episode is a parody of Scorsese’s remake of the 1962 film. It is stuffed full of references which certainly went over my head when I saw it (I’ve never seen the De Niro film, I hadn’t heard of Gilbert and Sullivan when I was 12), and is worthy of study and analysis. As the characters on stage discuss, the episode uses the famous Cape Fear musical strain, as well as matching camera shots. It combines ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.
But Washburn is also warning that you can read too much into things. I started to question everything in this play, finding symbolism that probably wasn’t there – when Bart looks from one side of the boat to the other, finding crocodiles on one side and piranhas on the other, I wondered if it was a comment on how inescapable our destruction is.
In the 2nd act the characters have become a touring acting troupe, performing Simpsons episodes live and combining them with commercials and pop medleys. First we see them perform scenes from Cape Feare. Many of the audience laugh – but they are laughing at jokes from the original episode, not at anything Washburn has written. Then a fantastically talented cast perform a melange of Party Rock, Lose Yourself, Toxic, Livin La Vida Loca, climaxing with a Daft Punk medley. It is tempting to say that the people who are getting less from the show are older, that they are just not integrated into the cultural context that a younger generation is. Sure, someone who’s never heard of Ricky Martin or Daft Punk would be a little bit lost. But I found it so refreshing to see such ‘lowbrow’ elements on stage. How great that Washburn has completely dispensed with the assumption that cartoons and chart music are somehow innately inferior.
The acting troupe discusses how best to perform these episodes, episodes that have been rehashed from snippets of lines that they can remember, and those that they have bought from members of the public (a nod to the way that artistic endeavours today rely on crowdsourcing?). Their in-depth analysis is presented in exactly the same way as actors would discuss a passage from Shakespeare – but here it is applied to this FBI scene.
So they transact TV episodes, they write their own commercials for products that no longer exist, they use makeshift props to create costumes. The spirit of entertainment lives on after civilisation falls, but what survives is not Ibsen or Euripides or Shakespeare – it is The Simpsons.
Act 3 becomes a wailing, ritualistic opera set 75 years beyond Act 2 in which time and memory have amalgamated every image, musical strain, plot element and genre from Acts 1 and 2 into one gruesome live Simpsons episode. The drama is played out with a score that features strains from the Cape Fear film, snatches of the Simpsons theme, melodies from Britney Spears and Eminem but with no distinction between them. TV, film, cartoon, commercials, theatre, music and religious ritual have all collided into a dizzyingly beautiful, audacious, frightening explosion of performance. There are no performative or generic boundaries anymore; TV and film and stage are all the same, traces of cultural history catapulted into a future that does not care if they were once considered worthy or once considered trash. The future treats history with indifference, with disregard for status. Aristophanes makes fart jokes and we study him as one of the greats of western civilisation.
Already in 2014, as the prescient Robin Thicke (a true Pythia for our age) has pointed out, there are blurred lines between forms of entertainment. Netflix shows no regard for distinction between film and TV, it has commissioned several successful online-only series. A screen is just a screen and a stage a stage – those spaces are too free to confine to particular genres.
In Mr Burns, time is like Chinese whispers or, to put it in more modern terms, like Google translate. In Washburn’s play each act is fed into Google translate, sucked into the future and regurgitated with some of the original meaning lost.
Washburn’s script is ostensibly trashy: a post-apocalyptic play about The Simpsons, using horror tropes, musical theatre and cartoons. But it is astonishingly ambitious. The way she writes the characters in Act 1 is a beautiful rendition of natural speech, full of interruptions and corrections by other characters, with every ‘like’ (so infuriating to the older generations) carefully placed to emulate the way I talk to my friends. Their reminiscence of The Simpsons is like so many conversations I’ve had, and I wanted to join in their conversation, to shout the bits they’re missing or getting wrong.
Structurally, it builds to a vertiginous climax: Act 1 shows us the characters – Gibson, Matt, Jenny – who have names and identifiable traits. Then Act 2 shows us that Gibson, Matt, Jenny et al. have become actors, and we see them rehearse their show. And Act 3 is purely a performance, a kind of expressionistic abstraction of key human traits like good and evil. Sideshow Bob and Mr Burns have melded into one evil character, Bart stands for the good, precocious hero. Reality and performance have merged.
The detail in the stage design is stunning: in Act 3 priestly figures in Simpsons-yellow robes crown Jenna Russell, a Bart abstraction, with a baseball cap that has a plastic crown glued on top, an image that sums up the whole play: popular culture jammed in together with the sacred stage space, theatre presented as ritualistic. The costumes mirror the perversion of the iconic images of the Simpsons characters. Grime has grown on everything. During the two intervals there is the high, buzzing hum of fluorescent lights, and twisted karaoke versions of popular songs – Born In The USA, Moondance, Heroes – play overhead.
Ok, that’s enough. Watching Mr Burns is to witness the phenomenal creation of its own internal mythology, to see the process of elevation and forgetting that is required in myth making. Ovid was once considered cheap and dirty poetry because it was about the grotesque elements of sex and relationships. Now we recognise him as one of the greatest writers of all time. Mr Burns questions our assumptions about what constitutes low and high culture. It taps into the world of a younger generation in an authentic, unpatronising way. It understands what we consume and why we consume it and why it endures and why it will endure.
I saw too much snobbery last Friday. At the end of the play someone stood up and said loudly “I prefer Fathers and Sons any day.” Personal preference is fine, but closed-mindedness is sad. And it seems to stem from the assumption that the production has failed. “Imputation of failure to the author should be the critic’s last resort” I once read. For some of the first night reviews plastering broadsheets and blogs with flimsy star ratings failure was the first conclusion they jumped to and the one they stuck with, and I feel genuinely sorry that they missed out on one of the richest, most thought-provoking, imaginative, intricate, intelligent scripts, one of the most startling, dazzling designs, and one of the most accomplished creative teams I’ve witnessed at the theatre.
But then maybe I’m reading too much into it.
But then again, maybe that’s the point.