For a truly weird and wonderful night at the theatre, Mr Burns, currently playing at the Almeida Theatre, is well worth a look. This self-proclaimed ‘post-electric’ play explores how pop culture has not only permeated our collective psyche to a terrifying degree, but in a fantastical imaginary nuclear-devastated world, it may be all there is to hold it together. The first act of Mr Burns takes place in an atmospheric, dimly lit campsite, where characters struggle to recollect the minute details of a particular Simpsons episode. The episode in question is itself a parody of the 1962 cult film, Cape Fear, and sees Bart receiving death threats from loveable villain, Sideshow Bob, which drives the family into hiding under a witness protection programme. The characters piece the episode together, interrupted by an intruder who ingratiates himself by offering quotes which complete their narrative. Through the prism of this fractured recollection, we come to learn that nuclear explosions have devastated the landscape and left people without families, homes or hope, the act making for a harrowing depiction of a future which is altogether possible, if not probable.
The second act takes place seven years later, where the characters have formed a travelling am-dram group, showcasing the Simpsons episode recalled in Act One. They struggle to compete in an environment where remembered lines are bought and sold, and rival renditions of popular TV shows saturate the story-starved market. The Simpsons episode they recreate is not only packed with hilarious costumes and gags, but cleverly framed by an advert fabricated by the group, and punctuated by a brilliant medley of songs from Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ to ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’. This is all to suggest that in this fictional future the prevailing cultural remnants which will be recycled and retold will not be Shakespeare, but Spears. It is in Act Three that Mr Burns really takes a flight of fancy, skipping forward 75 years to a world where The Simpsons has truly reached cult-status, with a gold-clad Greek chorus ritualising their rendition of the episode recounted in the previous acts. It’s a mind-blowing feat of imagination, made all the more impressive for Michael Henry and Orlando Gough’s brilliant score and Jenna Russell’s soprano Bart Simpson.
This brilliant pastiche of a programme which itself is a biting satire, brought to such heights under Robert Icke’s bold direction, really paints a picture of how our individual and cultural identity is formed by myth, ritual and story-telling. Indeed what makes Mr Burns all the more searing is its frequent meta-theatricality, underpinning this piece about stories and how loose and incoherent reality is, making for a truly mind-bending theatrical experience. Indeed, Mr Burns is unlike anything else you will see at the Almeida – or elsewhere for that matter – thanks to its creative team which is truly at the top of its game. Tom Scutt’s brilliant design takes us on a highly visual journey from the sparse, post-apocalyptic devastation, to the splendour of Act Three, which is truly a feast for the eyes, supported by Philip Gladwell’s rich lighting design and Tom Gibbons’ effective sound.
For how unusual and divisive Mr Burns may be, with some moments of bewilderment given the unfamiliar futuristic context, and others of pure brilliance thanks to the ambitiousness of the concept and the strength of the cast, Mr Burns is one of those pieces of theatre you will be glad to be able to say you’ve seen, even if just for how utterly bonkers it is. Mr Burns is pure entertainment mixed with a powerful message and not to be missed. Mr Burns is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 26 July. For more information and tickets, see the Almeida Theatre website. Photo by Manuel Harlan.