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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Mr. Burns
Almeida Theatre Summer 2014

Sometimes you encounter a work of art whose inspiration and intention were original and exciting but whose actual achievement is unsuccessful. You have to acknowledge the disappointment, but with regret and respect for what might have been. 

American playwright Anne Washburn, director Robert Icke and a hard-working cast set off on an exploration of how cultures, myths and even religions are born, with Washburn imagining a future in which bits of our present popular culture, mangled and misremembered, take on new and quasi-holy forms to meet the needs of a new world. 

The play opens a little after some apocalyptic event (evidently less a war than a simultaneous meltdown of all nuclear reactors and power grids) has decimated the population and left the survivors in a pre-industrial, pre-electric existence. It begins with some survivors sitting around a fire distracting themselves by trying to remember the plot of a typical episode of the TV cartoon show The Simpsons. 

Jump ahead seven years and the now agrarian and horse-drawn society (Why no one was able to re-invent electricity, steam power or the internal combustion engine is never explained) is entertained by travelling theatre troupes who enact mangled and low-tech versions of Simpsons episodes. 

Move forward another 75 years and we find a new religion with the performance of a mass/oratorio/opera in which barely recognisable avatars of the Simpsons are jumbled together with bits of Peter Pan, Beetlejuice, Cape Fear, The Mikado and other remnants of our culture, set to music ranging from opera to rap to Britney Spears. 

Some of it is very clever. In the second act the touring players include commercial breaks in their performances, but while they remember that the ads were all little plays about happy families, they've completely forgotten that they were selling things. And frequent bursts of laughter from various parts of the audience indicate that the third act oratorio is full of passing pop culture references I didn't catch. 

And surely Anne Washburn's basic insight is a good one – however much of a comic jumble the oratorio is, it does suggest how myths are formed (Think of how northern European winter rituals were mashed into the Nativity story to produce the Christmas tree). 

The problem is that all this is an intellectual construct that you might appreciate in retrospect, but that has little clarity or theatrical life in performance. 

Lobby chatter during both intervals tended toward 'So what's the point?', and while the last act has enough pop culture in-jokes to be entertaining, the first two are showing us people we have little interest in (and in the very dark first act can barely see) doing things that have little meaning for us, all to no clear purpose. 

Meanwhile the playwright makes some artistic choices that I think are self-defeating. I can understand how it is central to her vision that the new mythology drift away from the facts, but both theoretically and theatrically that's disappointing. 

We'd like to believe that there are some remnants of the historical Jesus left in Christianity, some of the real Queen Victoria remaining in our shared image of her. But at no time do any of the versions of the Simpsons – the survivors' memories, the players' recreations or the celebrants' ceremony – resemble or in any way evoke the originals. 

And that is a theatrical error, because audiences want to see glimpses, however fleeting, of the Bart, Homer and others that they know, and will lose connection to the play as they repeatedly fail to appear. 

The result is an evening whose power lies almost entirely in the concept and not the execution, whose concept takes too long to become clear (if it does at all), and whose execution is not as inviting, evocative or entertaining as the concept deserved. 

None of this is a criticism of the actors, whose commitment and dedication to a difficult script and whose abilities and versatility as performers are unquestionable.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Mr. Burns - Almeida Theatre 2014
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