‘The Simpsons’ takes the leap from pop culture to high art in the new production of Anne Washburn’s apocalyptic dramatic comedy, ‘Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play’.
In the wake of a mass nuclear meltdown, America has plunged into darkness. A small group of survivors, ripped from their families and communities, come together around a campfire in the woods and begin to tell a story.
“This group of survivors find themselves around a campfire in Act One and to pass the time, but to also distract themselves from the enormity of what’s happened, they start retelling an episode of 'The Simpsons', ‘Cape Feare’,” explains Imara Savage, Director for the Australian production by Belvoir and State Theatre Company.
Before rubbing your hands together and gleefully exclaiming “excellent”, ‘Mr Burns’ is not a play about 'The Simpsons', but rather a deeply layered allegory for the importance of storytelling and the preservation of culture through theatre.
“It’s an investigation of how storytelling becomes important in times of crisis,” Imara says, “how we keep stories alive, and the importance of theatre in keeping stories alive, and how those stories over a period of 100 years change over time through a process of ‘Chinese whispers’.”
What starts as a simple retelling of the episode in Act One, has become a travelling theatre performance in Act Two which is set seven years later. By Act Three (set 100 years later), The Simpsons have been elevated to something of mythology and religion, with Mr Burns becoming the embodiment of the greed and corruption that led to the meltdown in the first place.
“In the end, Mr Burns is a fully-fledged living embodiment of nuclear energy, and Bart is a Luke Skywalker in a way; it’s his job to defeat evil,” Imara says. “It very much becomes a story about good versus evil and it’s a story about archetypes. I think it’s a warning, it’s Anne Washburn’s warning against the dangers of nuclear energy.”
“By the end, Mr Burns, who’s not in ‘Cape Feare’ – Sideshow Bob is in ‘Cape Feare’ – but by Act Three the evil character of Sideshow Bob has morphed into Mr Burns, because he’s the one who owns the nuclear power plant. It becomes a story about the survival of the human race post an apocalyptic nuclear meltdown, and Mr Burns has come to represent everything evil about nuclear power.”
Written in the aftermath of September 11, ‘Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play’ has been described as a dark comedy and while it retains a sense of humour, Imara says the story carries a serious message.
“I don’t even know that it is a comedy to be honest,” she says. “Yeah, it has The Simpsons in it but it is essentially about a group of survivors who have lost their families, who have lost their communities in a post-apocalyptic world, and who come together to try and keep culture alive through storytelling."
"The Simpsons are in it and everyone thinks it’s going to be hugely funny, but Anne wrote this post-September 11. That was the impetus for the writing and I think it’s important to remember that. So really it’s a play about family and community, and it’s an homage to storytelling and theatre, and how important it is to keep that alive.”
‘Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play’ is on at Adelaide Festival Centre's Space Theatre, 22 April-13 May and Belvoir St Theatre from 19 May-25 June.