Printable CopyMR BURNS
The State Theatre Company of South Australia
The Space
Until 13 May 2017

Review by John Wells

I was a teenager in the 1980s. It was a difficult time to be young. While we didn’t face the challenges of today’s youth – like cyber-bullying, sexting and Ed Sheeran – we lived in genuine fear of getting wiped out in a nuclear conflagration. Movies like “The Day After” and “Threads” scared us witless, as we worried about how humans would survive the coming nuclear apocalypse.

Anne Washburn’s intelligent and invigorating play “Mr Burns” is set in what she dubs a “post-electric” future. The play was first produced in 2012, but it feels eerily current, given the recent chest-thumping between Pyongyang and Washington…

There has been an unspecified nuclear disaster. A group of survivors huddles together, bewildered and scared. They calm and cheer themselves by remembering episodes of “The Simpsons”. They focus on the “Cape Feare” episode, each character scrambling to recall the plot and the gag lines. The opening scene is delightful in its bleakness: there is a frenzied desire for the civilizing effect of story-telling, and the lost souls cling to the companionship that laughter brings. This first act was work-shopped and improvised by a group of actors with Washburn, and it has a wonderful, pulsating energy.

We move forward seven years. The group of survivors has become a troupe of wandering performers, who recreate Simpsons episodes. But there is a buzzing desperation. Anger and violence simmers. As recollections fade, the company buys other people’s memories of the Simpsons episodes. Other groups compete for the audience. Even when the power has been off for years and tv screens are black, ratings are still important! The third act takes place seventy-five years later. In a dazzling imaginative leap, the story of Simpsons has become a semi-religious ritual of good and evil. This last stanza is sensational: it is a musical within the play. Esther Hannaford and Mitchell Butell (as Bart and Mr Burns) emerge from the strong ensemble in starring cameos. It is garish, lurid, clever, haunting, and brilliant.

This is an outstanding production. Imara Savage’s direction is clear and pacy. She has confidence in the writing and the skill of the performers, and pushes the performance to its creative limits. Savage is served by an excellent cast who performs with relaxed vigour. The design combines handsomely: Jonathan Oxlade’s simple set and progressively exotic costuming combines with Chris Petridis’ evocative and complimentary lighting. In the third act, Carol Young is a one-woman-band, providing wonderful live accompaniment to the action.

There are many highlights – the scrambling fever of trying to remember the best lines in “Cape Feare”, the travelling troupe’s medley of hits, and the sacramental phantasmagoria of the third act – but the outstanding features are the time-jumping, smart ideas at work. Washburn tumbles so many thoughts through her text, and the intellectual challenge of grabbing them as the play crackles along makes for exciting theatre. How pleasurable it is to grapple with ideas as they whiz past. The dominant theme of the importance of story-telling (from Homer to, er Homer) and theatre is beautifully handled. There is real cleverness, wit and knotty, layered conundrums: for example, where is truth, where is originality, when the players are re-creating a cartoon spoof of a classic movie which is a remake of a classic movie? Does truth matter? But almost more resonant are the observations about the way we humans move from experience, to memories, to ritual and on to religious faith within a few generations. There is a subtle but very strong meditation on how religion can be created through heightened emotion and the need to come to terms with a world full of mystery and horror. There are pointed and incisive questions on the nature of faith and reality.

The production is not perfect: the writing is a bit flabby and over-emphatic at times (particularly in the second act), a reasonable knowledge of “The Simpsons” is an advantage, and the ensemble does not always work smoothly. But this is a hugely entertaining show that sparkles with intelligence and skill.