Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 1
If you want something quirky and new with a huge dressing of crazy then you can’t do much better than see ‘Mr Burns’ at the Almeida Theatre, a play picturing the impact of, of all things, ‘The Simpsons’ after a nuclear disaster hits the USA (well, the whole world, but the play is set in the US – it’s actually a transfer from New York). It is, in its own words, a ‘post-electric play’. The majority of the first act is purely lit by a fire; no stage lights at all.
This one’s a tricky one to review, as it’s a play of three incredibly distinct acts. One thing I must say is that every single one of the cast acts their socks off throughout the play.The three who really stood out for me were Justine Mitchell as Jenny, the nervous organiser, Annabel Scholey as Maria, the young peacemaker, and Michael Schaeffer as Sam, the practical, strong, silent type, but seriously, all the cast are excellent, powerful actors.
One can truly see this during the first act, the best act imho, which takes place during the nuclear disaster, as the characters gather in a supposedly ‘safe’ place, (one uncontaminated by radiation) and, to distract them from the apocalyptic-like situation, the loss of their friends and family, they try to remember their favourite Simpsons episode (one of my favourites too actually, the one with Sideshow Bob in it – ‘Cape Feare’).
Like all my favourite dystopian books, the atmosphere of fear pervaded the most normal of conversations. The episode plot becomes like a lifeboat which they cling to, whilst trying not to drown in a sea of sorrows. For me the most poignant part was when Gibson arrives, midway through, and each character goes through their list of ten; the ten people they most miss, the ten they are most worried about, the ten they love most in the world. Voices shaking as much as the frail, much looked over, pieces of paper in their hands, one can’t help but wonder at these characters’ backstories. Who are these people who have been condensed to simply names and ages? What is their relationship to our characters? And the question that no one really wants to know the answer to: what has happened to them? It is these unanswered questions that are almost the most powerful element of the play.
If you thought the Harry Potter series was heavy on foreshadowing then you ain’t seen nothing yet. Every word or reference made in the first and second acts is vital to understanding the drug-like craziness that is the last third. In the second these allusions come particularly thick and fast;it is seven years later and the characters we saw previously (along with a couple of additions) have formed a troupe who travel the country and perform an entertainment show composed both of what they remember of the Simpsons’ episode, a version of ‘Greatest Hits’ with the songs they still remember, and ‘adverts’ in which they remember the American Dream lifestyle of before the nuclear disaster.
The element I found especially interesting about this concept was the fact that no one person can remember all of the lines, so each line has to be sourced and checked and bought, and naturally there’s more than one troupe, so each group is fighting to source all the lines and buy the rights to the most popular episodes etc. The tension of this, and obviously the ever-present impact of the nuclear explosions (no more diet coke *gasp!*) plays on the minds of individual members of the group, who all deal with it in different ways, some practically, some hysterically.
However, the real issue of this act is that of as dread of the unknown. Gibson (the most stressy character of them all I would say)completely freaks out because he can’t remember a group decision being made. It quickly becomes clear that what he is upset about is not so much the decision itself, but the fact that he could not remember it being taken. The sickening dread of the unknown after-effects of the nuclear disaster is preying on each and every one of them. There are still many areas they will never be able to go into for tens, hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of years. The playwright, Anne Washburn, really plays on our lack of knowledge of the side-effects of nuclear power, and therefore creates a similar feeling of dread and constant threat for the audience.
So far, so good. Yet a shock ending brings the interesting second act to an abrupt finish, and somehow in the interval not simply seven, but 75 years pass by.As you can imagine, this means the characters – who we are still only just really getting to discover for who they are, rather than for what they can tell us of the past and the apocalypse – are now no longer present.
Instead we embark a degenerate, bastard form of the show we saw being made 75 years earlier; a psychotic, incredibly dark musical of the Simpsons. Or rather, about the Simpsons, as the only real resemblances to the TV show we know and love are the characters (although they are dressed in these crazy, futuristic costumes which I quite liked, but my family hated) and the basic message of not giving in and hope in awful situations. However, rather than being comedically awful, the situation they are in is truly shockingly appalling.
*Ok this whole next paragraph is one massive spoiler, as the third act is full of shocks. However, I don’t feel I can reasonably make you understand the craziness unless I relate it, so if you’re going to see the play and don’t want the shock taken away then please skip! If not, read on and be prepared for some horrible revelations…*
The Simpsons are sailing away after Springfield and everyone in it is destroyed by an eruption at the nuclear power plant. However, evil Mr Burns and his vile sidekicks Itchy and Scratchy have snuck on board and proceed to murder Maggie, Homer and Marge, before raping (strongly implied not depicted thank God) Lisa and killing her too. Each dead character is thrown off the ship and goes up to ‘Mrs Krabappel’ – the kind of High Priestess of the proceedings and singing leader – who holds a bowl like a nuclear tower, filled with green paint with which the characters mark themselves before exiting. Bart is left alone to face Mr Burns and completely loses hope (who wouldn’t?!) and resolves himself to die. At the last minute, the ghosts of his dead family turn up and urge him to save himself before it’s too late. Eventually, after a lot more plaintive singing and fighting, Burns and his cronies seem to be defeated and are thrown off the ship, and Bart is left alone with his bittersweet victory and bleak future ahead of him.
Basically the whole forty minutes seemed to be an extended metaphor for the impact of the nuclear disaster. The characters through the ages are still trying to come to terms with the impact this catastrophe has had on them, and they use the Simpsons, the iconic American family, to show their suffering.
Mr Burns represents nuclear power; he kills almost all the town instantly, then slowly Bart’s relations in the most horrible way possible (previous lines about skin falling off etc. are referenced here, mixed in with allusions to remembered moments from famous films) until only Bart himself is left to struggle on alone. Burns departs with the lines (I’m paraphrasing but bear with): “I’ll be back! I’ll always be around for the next ten, hundred, thousand years! You’ll never get rid of me!” That’s when it really clicked for me; Bart has survived this battle, but he has lost everything in the process and he will have to live with the constant fear of Mr Burns reappearing.
Over time the odd lines, phrases, snatches of songs and shows and films have become jumbled in people’s heads. Since they can no longer truly remember the original, they patch the bits together to make something that fits their own experiences; just like it is often said, it is the person telling the story who makes the story.
As you can tell, I found this an incredibly interesting concept (I’d love to study this in English class!), but it wasn’t particularly enjoyable or indeed exciting when performed. It was almost too clever for its own good, if you see what I’m saying. I feel the conceit could have been put across in ten-fifteen minutes, rather than forty.
A clever touch at the end was when, as the characters bowed, fairy lights came on all over the theatre, finally lighting the auditorium and stage up as we had never seen previously. But before we could get our hopes up that the people of the future had managed to salvage their world, the crooked figure of Mr Burns appeared puffing and panting on a bicycle and as he slowed and finally stopped, the lights flickered and dies once more. I guess this, as well as symbolising the slow progress of the future improvements, also showed how we the audience are currently using (evil?) nuclear energy for our own means, but that it cannot last.
A thought-provoking, superbly acted play that was slightly let down by a crazy third act which left most of the audience (including myself) both shell-shocked and slightly confused. Still, worth going to see for the interesting first act and just to freak yourself out!
Mr Burns at the Almeida Theatre: 3.5/5 stars