When director Imara Savage (Sydney Theatre Company) first read the script for Mr Burns – A Post-Electric Play, she struggled to get her head around it. “I couldn’t even verbalise what I thought of it, I was so confused. That’s partly because it’s a libretto – it’s actually a play that becomes a musical or an opera.” Following seasons in London and New York (the New York Times called it “downright brilliant”), Mr Burns is coming to Adelaide and Sydney.
A collaboration between State Theatre Company and Belvoir, the production is “a 22nd-century mystery and morality opera that is using The Simpsons as a loose theme,” says Savage.
It’s also a parable about the importance of stories, and how popular culture is turned into high art over time. Naturally, that story is told with the help of The Simpsons, Rihanna and Eminem.
It begins in the very near future with a nuclear meltdown and a group of survivors looking to comfort and distract each other. They turn to something familiar and recount the Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons.
Seven years later the survivors have formed a troupe that travels around the countryside performing episodes of the animated show for other survivors. They even recreate the experience of watching television and channel surfing by splicing live commercials and pop songs into the story. By the third act, 75 years later, the original survivors are gone and their stories have morphed into something else entirely.
Mr Burns is about the way the meaning and importance of a story change over time, starting with a retelling of a parody of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear that is itself a remake of a book adaptation. The result is a deeply self-referential play that’s an homage to the show that inspired it.
The Simpsons changed the way we interact with popular culture with its deep intertextuality and dense references to both high and low art. It influenced playwright Anne Washburn, who has said Mr Burns is not a play about The Simpsons, but rather about people for whom The Simpsons is important.
She considered using an episode of Friends or Cheers as the play's starting point but, despite their ubiquity, it’s hard to imagine a similar result from either of these more conventional comedies.
For Savage there’s another reason the choice made so much sense: “The Simpsons is really about family and Springfield is a community. They become a way for the audience to identify with a particular family and the community that was lost … and this last survivor, Bart Simpson, who’s around a hundred years later to warn subsequent generations.”
By the time we reach the third act the characters have transcended their original setting to become archetypes familiar from every story. “Bart has become everyman: Jesus … Luke Skywalker … every hero ever told in a story, and Mr Burns has become Darth Vader … Voldemort. The story becomes less a story of The Simpsons and more a parable about the last family to survive the nuclear holocaust.”
Strangely, Mr Burns doesn’t feature in the episode the meltdown survivors initially recount for comfort – the villain in Cape Feare is Sideshow Bob. But this post-electric world is reliant solely on oral traditions, and without a copy of the original text Sideshow Bob’s identity becomes confused with that of The Simpsons’s greatest villain. Mr Burns, the antisocial owner of the nuclear power plant, has become the embodiment of evil and corporate greed, and of the damage wrought to the environment and society through a nuclear meltdown.
“The idea is that after 100 years, the memory of the Simpsons is diluted and filtered through the prism of time and it becomes a much more abstracted representation and probably a more symbolic representation of evil and toxicity and nuclear power.”
Mr Burns – A Post-Electric Play runs from April 22 to May 13 at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre. Tickets are available online