Mr Burns, Almeida Theatre, London – review

“Worst. Post-apocalyptic dystopia. Ever,” as The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy might say. We don’t know what disaster has struck the America of “soon” in Anne Washburn’s play, only that it has wiped out more than 99 per cent of the population and extinguished all electrical supplies. The few who barely survive band together to reconstruct half-remembered stories that recall the old life and values. In this case, the story is “Cape Feare”, one of the murderous Sideshow Bob episodes of the long-running animated television series.

Washburn covertly suggests that The Simpsons owes its success to being at once a caricature of American values and an affirmation of them, and if that resonates in our post-ironic age, it also would in an era that was post-virtually everything. In Act One of the play, it is not just the script’s reminders of how they used to live that bring the various individuals together around a makeshift brazier; the act of recollection and retelling forms a bond in itself. In Act Two, set seven years later, surviving society has evolved to the point where travelling mummers’ companies trade in these reconstructions: some Shakespeare but mostly Simpsons. “Our” company intersperses its Springfield material with “commercials” – mini-dramas that serve as a nostalgic paean to the days before all the Diet Coke ran out – and a bizarre, hilarious medley of chart hits.

Robert Icke directs his ensemble cast of eight with the same blend of energy and shock he brought to his version of 1984. For much of the first two acts, however, it feels interesting and entertaining rather than convincing on any deeper level, as if in crossing the Atlantic it has lost its potency of association.

Everything comes together in the third and final act. Seventy-five years further on, stories have become rituals that combine all the elements previously seen: grand opera (Sideshow Bob sings HMS Pinafore in the original story; here, the score is by Orlando Gough and Michael Henry); the episode’s references to both film versions of Cape Fear and to The Night of the Hunter; religious death-and-resurrection ceremonial (the company first appear in skull masks, then the family’s hairstyles become ornate headdresses); and even snatches of numbers such as “Livin’ La Vida Loca”. Sideshow Bob is now translated into Mr Burns (hitherto a significant absence), and Bart’s struggle against him is, in effect, a struggle for all this future society holds dear.

Gradually this absurd, unreal performance comes to encapsulate not just the old, now-mythical way of life and the new one within the world of the play, but also our own. It feels increasingly like one of the oldest Greek dramas which served to affirm the polis to which actors and audience alike belonged, and it is no surprise to find that Washburn has also made a free adaptation of Euripides’ Orestes. The intellectual fascination of the patterned material meshes with an emotional significance on an instinctual level. Artistic director Rupert Goold considers this an exemplar of the kind of work he wants to bring to the Almeida – to which the fitting response is: “Ex-cell-ent.”

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