Left – Esther Hannaford, Jude Henshall, Brent Hill and Paula Arundell. Cover – Jude Henshall, Brent Hill and Jacqy Phillips. Photos – Brett Boardman
In the unremarkable post-apocalyptic dragon movie Reign of Fire, there is one memorable scene in which children watch adults perform a pantomime for them of what is apparently one of the few remaining pieces of humanity’s collective cultural mythology… a scene from Star Wars.
In a similar but far more elaborate vein, this play asks: what if the apocalypse finally happened, and all that the remnants of humanity struggling in the ashes had left to entertain themselves with was to retell half-remembered episodes of The Simpsons to each other? At its most basic level, that is the oddball yet provocative premise behind Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, one of the most unusual and intriguing imported shows to grace our stages this year.
This is a play which is at turns simple yet complex, richly layered yet straightforward, at turns surprisingly deep and yet skimming the surface. It is an audacious piece of writing which merits substantial discussion, yet by the nature of its content it is difficult to do so without delving into the piece with details that rather give away some of the potential surprises of the viewing experience. So, as they say, “spoiler warnings” if you read ahead.
More a dark social satire and exploration of a central concept than a strongly plot-driven narrative or tight character drama, the story opens with a small group of Americans chatting in the wilderness, who are passing the time by trying collectively to remember the story beats and key jokes from “Cape Feare”, a popular episode of the primetime cartoon The Simpsons. However, when they suddenly all draw guns on a new arrival, the subsequent exchanges reveal that these are all survivors of a recent apocalyptic catastrophe.
The dialogue is intentionally vague about the nature and extent of the disaster, but it has evidently decimated the citizenry of America, and likely the world, with the major stated threat to the tiny remaining population coming in the form of nuclear power plants across the country facing meltdown in the wake of having no qualified people left to maintain them. The new arrival, although not a fan of cartoons, contributes some additional memories as well as some experience in amateur theatrics, as conversation drifts away from discussing morbid rumours of the surrounding holocaust and returns to their piecing-together of the Simpsons episode.
The story then cuts to seven years later, and the same group with some further additions are in rehearsals for a production that recreates the “Cape Feare” episode as a stage play, complete with costumes cobbled together from the post-apocalyptic detritus, intended to represent the animated yellow characters. Again, there are very sparse details given as to the wider nature of society at this point after the apocalypse, but evidently fears of radiation and lawlessness remain.
What is a lot clearer, however, is that something very strange has happened to popular culture. In the absence of any technology to speak of (or, it seems, recordings of any kind), a competitive industry of live theatre has arisen, staging performances of television episodes as cobbled together from collective memory, and The Simpsons appears to be the most popular material. Indeed, competition for this new (perhaps only) form of public entertainment is so fierce that an entire new economy has formed around touring rival theatre troupes, with some kind of emergent exclusivity laws restricting performance rights of particular “episodes” to the companies that own them. Larger theatre groups buy out smaller struggling ones, hire better security, and ruthlessly gain control of regional markets. Theatre also seems to have a collaborative economic angle, with companies “buying lines” from members of the community who claim to be able to remember parts of the episode they have missed, in the hopes of creating the most accurately canonical representations of the televised cartoons.
Times are tough, and this strange mutated form of half-remembered television-as-theatre, complete with acted-out commercial breaks and Top 40 radio medleys, is not just a livelihood but a method of survival for these characters. The world they live in is still bleak and perilous, and even working as entertainers is certainly not without dangers.
However, weird and intriguing a picture of post-apocalyptic pop-culture as this is, the boldest turn comes after interval, whereby the action once again jumps forward, but by a much larger gap of a further seventy-five years. With what one can only imagine is a shortened life expectancy in this desolate new world, this third segment implicitly features none of the original survivor characters from the first two sequences, presenting a society in which television and quite possibly the apocalypse itself is now outside the immediate reach of living memory. What has happened over the ensuing decades to the play we previously saw being rehearsed is nothing short of an extraordinary cultural mutation.
Where three quarters of a century earlier the actors strove to try and re-create the original cartoons from memory as accurately as possible, what we see now is a highly adapted work which has altered, conflated, recontextualised and mythologised its subject matter into some kind of quasi-religious allegory. Part musical, part vaudeville, and heavily drawing on the stylistic iconography of masked classical Greek theatre and Medieval passion plays, the Simpsons family have become symbols, Homer and Marge being ossified into archetypes of fatherhood, and motherhood, and so forth. With his iconic zig-zag cartoon hair now worn by an actress as a royal crown, Bart has become a kind of tragic boy-prince, part reluctant Hamlet, part heroic knight-Templar.
Not only have the characters been appropriated by this new culture, the story has become recontextualised as well. This strange medievalist operetta is still identifiably based on the premise of the original “Cape Feare” Simpsons episode, yet all semblance of it being a parody of a Scorsese thriller film set on a houseboat has now given way to a symbolic journey by a family escaping death on a dark river. Thus, the old cartoon has become a mythic retelling of society’s survival of the real world’s apocalypse.
To further this metaphor and its passion-play stylisation, the evil clown Sideshow Bob, who was the villain of the actual episode, has been adaptively substituted for the show’s primary antagonist, the billionaire Mr. Burns, who has now taken on literally satanic proportions. Unlike the cartoon on which it was based, this story has now become a parable of genocide, loss and survival, a biblical clash of good and evil between Bart Simpson, child of tomorrow, and Mr. Burns, avatar of radioactive ashes.
Significantly though, this final act restricts itself to the actual performance – we are given no behind-the-scenes glimpse at who this new generation of actors is, nor any clear sense of the surrounding society of which this play is a cultural expression. Has humanity rebuilt itself to any significant extent? Is this show still a form of capitalised popular entertainment, or something more ritualised? Has The Simpsons become an actual religion, or merely broadened into popular mythic expressions? Where is this being performed? And to what kind of audience?
Of course, explicit explanations for all these things are omitted on purpose, as playwright Anne Washburn is obviously not interested in science-fiction “world-building” so much as weaving a somewhat metaphorical take on the ways cultural products and their meaning reinvent themselves in the face of time and adversity. That said, this disjunction between the first two parts and the concluding act in terms of their treatment of exposition and character lie at the crux of what is perhaps this play’s biggest flaw, or at any rate its potential to leave some audiences cold. By focusing so much on the evolution of how the content from this episode of The Simpsons transitions over the better part of a century from campfire conversation to entrenched theatrical ritual, it does so largely at the expense of the characters in the actual play, nor even having a particularly strong underpinning narrative in and of itself.
This is not to criticise a theatrical work for being chiefly concerned by big ideas. Indeed, the play canvasses fascinating explorations of how oral traditions and collective cultural memory might function in a record-less, post-electronic society, with an emphasis on preserving textual authenticity and the accuracy of sources resulting in rearticulations of protectionist hierarchies, akin to monetising intellectual property rights and entertainment industry conglomerations. The apparent heightening of half-remembered mass pop-culture to a place of apparent cultural primacy is provocative. Formalised and classicised elements highlight both the shift from nostalgia for the comforts of a lost world (as exemplified by the staging of commercials) to a form of appropriation with religious overtones, recontextualising these narratives mixed with other popculture detritus into a kind of foundation myth for a new society.
These are all deeply stimulating ideas, and the show itself is never boring, with the final act showing the entire passion play version of the production in full, and what a bizarre and captivating show it is, awash with dramatic shifts in genre and style, replete with costumes rendering the Simpson family as medievalist effigies and the musical interjections shot through with traces of recognisable pop songs and other seemingly mass-media references. The choice of the episode “Cape Feare” in particular is highly thematic, as it is itself a parody of a film which is a remake of an earlier film based in turn on a novel, thus perfectly encapsulating the play’s postmodern theme of iterative retellings of stories for different audiences across different eras.
However, those looking for a drama about characters experiencing the events of a plot may be disappointed by its lack of follow-through in favour of a more conceptual and thematic focus when the show jumps generations ahead. This is especially given the initially naturalistic treatment of the post-apocalyptic survivors we see at the outset, that will be familiar to anyone accustomed to The Walking Dead or Mad Max.
Although much like the playwright’s obvious choice to intentionally avoid over-explaining the finer details of her fictional apocalypse and the resulting dystopia, it may seem churlish to raise “believability” as a problem, but nevertheless there is an extent to which the subject matter does seem oddly dated, as much as that is a criticism that I typically loathe. This play debuted Washington DC in 2012, and was originally developed in 2008, yet even watching it now in 2017 its reference points all seem frozen in the late 1990’s and early ‘Noughties. While The Simpsons was and to a large extent still is a pop-cultural monolith, it is also a show that is widely considered to have long ago spent its cultural currency after almost 30 years of continuous production, such that even its spiritual successor Family Guy is in turn a long-running cartoon regarded by many as passé.
Combined with the liberal use of Britney Spears and Eminem as musical references, this feels like the conceptualisation of the memories of a slightly earlier society, a pre-Netflix, pre-YouTube culture that experienced an apocalypse much closer to the millennium than to the present day, let alone our own near future. This will probably not bother audiences above a certain age bracket, but one cannot help but wonder at the longevity of this deeply interesting play some decades hence, without significant updating.
With a uniformly strong cast directed by Imara Savage, this is an excellent local production of a highly engrossing and thoughtful play, albeit one that may not have a long shelf-life, nor satisfy those more interested primarily in character-driven narrative.
Mr Burns, a post-electric play
by Anne Washburn
Director Imara Savage
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre | Belvoir St Surry Hills NSW
Dates: 19 May – 25 June 2017
Mr Burns is co-produced with State Theatre Company South Australia