Mr Burns

Issue section: 
(393)

Almeida Theatre, London, until 26 July

If you were given the task of preserving culture for future generations what would you save? Gilbert and Sullivan or Eminem? Shakespeare or the Simpsons? How much would you remember? And would you remember it right?

Mr Burns is described as a post-electric play. It opens with the audience plunged into darkness and a small group of people on stage around a camp fire. We know something has happened but are never really clear what. Few people are left alive. Nuclear power stations have gone up in flames and there is no power.

The group are entertaining themselves by trying to recall an episode of The Simpsons. For those of us who have seen the episode they are refering to, watching the characters slowly piece together half remembered fragments of the plot is both frustrating and hilarious.

As time passes the play morphs into a slightly unhinged musical, but the Simpsons story is still being retold, becoming more and more important to the survivors and their descendants.

Mr Burns suggests that a good story can both link people to the past and also tell us something about ourselves. The play’s programme features an essay on “stories that last” — including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Mahabharata, the Arabian Nights and Grimm’s fairy tales.

In a future society could an animated TV show about a yellow skinned suburban family take on the same role as these epics? The Simpsons does seem to have an enduring appeal.

Playwright Anne Washburn argues that, as it’s about community and family, The Simpsons would appeal to people in the future “mourning a lost civilisation”. The show also pokes fun at authority figures. Springfield has a corrupt mayor, stupid cops and of course an evil boss at the power plant — Mr Burns. Around the time of the Occupy movement someone drew Mr Burns holding up a card reading “I am the 1 percent — Smithers, release the hounds”.

The play calls into question why we tend to categorise cartoons as a form of “low culture” whereas opera and classical music are “high culture”. Ironically some of its references seem to have been lost on a few members of the white wine swilling theatre audience. If you’re already a fan of The Simpsons, this daring play will make you think. If not, watching a bunch of people sat around talking about the show will probably just leave you baffled.