Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play (Belvoir, Sydney)

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The highest stakes on a Sydney stage this year may well show up in the first act of American playwright Anne Washburn’s brilliant and brutal Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play.

Those sky-high stakes aren’t because the ongoing existence of humanity is under threat (although it is), nor are they because the safety of the characters on stage is under threat (although it is). They’re because our collective Western popular culture is facing extinction.

SupportBadgeThe play opens not long after an apocalyptic event has wiped out all the electricity in America, along with much of the population. A small group of survivors are huddled around a campfire late at night. Occasionally there’s a rustle of leaves off in the distance, causing the survivors to all pull out their firearms to protect themselves from possible intruders. This is America — the electricity might have gone out, but guns will never be in short supply.

To pass the time and cheer themselves up, the survivors attempt to remember and retell an episode of The Simpsons. 

Without electricity, they have no way to experience this beloved work but to remember the best they can. Unfortunately, their memories are imperfect.

I’d re-watched the episode of The Simpsons which they try to recreate — Cape Feare — the day before seeing Mr Burns. There were several moments where details and entire scenes were misremembered, or left out entirely, and I found myself leaning forward in my chair, hoping against hope the survivors’ memories wouldn’t fail them.

I’m no Simpsons super-fan, but the idea that this great icon of popular culture could be forgotten, distorted and lost is rather disturbing.

The second act, set seven years later, shows how that initial campfire conversation became the seed for something much bigger. The survivors have formed a travelling theatre company that performs episodes of The Simpsons, alongside advertisements for pre-apocalypse goods, and pop music hits.

The third act, set 75 years later, is an epic pop opera (music by Michael Friedman, with a little help from Eminem, Britney Spears and Gilbert and Sullivan) built around the great myth of The Simpsons. The storytelling has taken on an almost religious quality, with the Simpson family presented as great heroes while Mr Burns (the owner of a nuclear power plant like the ones that failed and left America in the dark) has become a camp, terrifying villain representing all kinds of darkness.

Mr Burns is almost certainly the most unusual, original and intelligent piece of writing to premiere on a Sydney stage this year. It’s an extraordinary exploration of how storytelling and culture survives, evolves, and is moulded to fit our needs.

Director Imara Savage’s production arrives in Sydney after an Adelaide season, and is in superb shape. The performances feel completely lived-in, and there’s a sincerity to Savage’s approach which refuses to let the audience dismiss the play as a gimmick.

There’s also a real sense of danger in the first two acts, making the events of the apocalypse, and the social structure that has risen in its place (remembered lines from The Simpsons have become a tradable and highly valuable good), feel entirely plausible.

Savage has cast actors who are equally at home with the gritty realism of the first act and the larger-than-life musical theatre of the third. Mitchell Butel can do no wrong in this production, first as Gibson, the stubborn but scared former amateur theatre star, and then as an arch, sparkling but scary Mr Burns.

Esther Hannaford delivers an unexpectedly moving performance as Bart in the third act — forging into an unknown future — while Brent Hill is superb as Simpsons fan Matt, who goes on to play Homer.

In fact, this ensemble — Butel, Hannaford, Hill, alongside Paula Arundell, Jude Henshall, Ezra Juanta and Jacqy Phillips — is just about the best you could hope for with this material.

Jonathan Oxlade’s design is as smart as it is spectacular, particularly in the third act, in which his costumes recast key characters from The Simpsons as pseudo-mythic figures. In this act, Bart Simpson is at once Arthurian, a musical theatre star, an Eminem-style rapper, and perhaps even a Jesus figure. The breadth and depth of Washburn’s imagination is extraordinary, and every element of this production illuminates the text.

It’s also an ode to our great pop culture — from Gilbert and Sullivan, to Cape Fear (the 1991 De Niro one, of course), to Britney Spears, to The Simpsons — and the breaking down of arbitrary divides between low and high art. Washburn presents a terrifying image of the future, but she knows that culture is what we’ll cling to for comfort and a sense of our place in a world falling apart.

[box]Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play is at Belvoir until June 25

Featured image by Brett Boardman[/box]

5 responses to “Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play (Belvoir, Sydney)

  1. Ho hum another review of another Sydney event. Wont they spring for a bus fare to another city Ben? Or is culture restricted to Sydney these days…

    Mind you an ensemble play recreating a Simpson’s episode does sound groundbreaking…

    1. Hi Mark,
      I’m glad you asked that question! No, we cannot spring for a bus fare as we don’t have the funds. Ben is our full time reporter and reviewer in Sydney but we don’t have equivalent resources in Melbourne. Have you read about the crisis in (arts) journalism? Well, this is the crisis. When advertisers – particularly the state funded arts companies, galleries and museums – put their marketing budgets into their own siloed websites and into Google and Facebook ads, then declining revenue means we don’t have enough funds to cover certain stories or review a wide selection of shows. We are trying to amend this situation by looking at other methods of revenue raising (including asking our readers to support us), but if you have any other bright ideas on how to stem the decline in advertising, then please let us know (and I’m sure Fairfax Media and The Guardian would like to know about it too!). In the meantime, you might like to ask those who run your favourite, tax- payer funded arts company, if they are concerned about the decline in arts journalism and how this will impact the “arts ecology” that they often speak of! Cheers, Ray

  2. I had a front row seat to this event and struggled to stay awake. The first hour was so unfunny and rambling I did a runner. Ensemble cast? Wouldn’t matter if it was a school amateur troupe doing these boring Simpson lines and chat about American junk culture.

  3. I saw the play on Friday night and found the themes enthralling, a great piece of writing and a beautifully balanced cast and performance. Well done to all.

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