The last show at the Almeida, King Charles III, was a daringly clever play that used exquisite pastiche, both serious and playful, to suggest that the only way we can imagine our near future is by retelling old stories and reusing old forms. And so, pleasingly enough, is the new show at the Almeida.
Mr Burns by Anne Washburn comes to the Almeida hot-foot from Playwrights Horizons in New York. The play has caused a bit of a furore here with at least two critics (well one critic and Tim Walker) giving it vitriolically bad reviews. 'this is a play that can only possibly put people off theatre', 'three hours of utter hell', 'By the [third act], I’d lost the will to live, and can only hope that if this is the future of theatre after the apocalypse, I’d rather not survive it myself'. And so on. But actually, it's also had some very good reviews and a fair number that sit on the fence. So it's not quite Marmite: some hate it, some love it, and some seem just rather mystified.
It doesn't seem that mystifying to me. It has an Off-Broadway quirkiness about it, which is fairly alien to London theatre tastes (I usually find that kind of thing maddening), and it's unusual for a show in Britain to invest so heavily - and unironically at heart - in popular culture, to investigate it and treat it as a wellspring for understanding who we are. But the story is pretty straightforward: there has been some kind of apocalyptic collapse of civilisation in America centred on the collapse of the electricity grid and one of the things the survivors do is try to tell each other stories they remember from before the fall, including episodes of The Simpsons. Some months later this has evolved and now amateur theatre groups tour lo-fi live and imperfectly-remembered versions of Simpsons episodes (but also episodes of The West Wing and Shakespeares and presumably much more), interspersed with adverts and medleys of pre-apocalyptic pop music. In the third act, seventy years later, these performances have evolved further: they are now a mixture of religious ritual, theatrical tragedy, sitcom, broadway musical, and opera.
What links all the acts is the act of storytelling and an exploration of the idea that societies are drawn to tell and retell stories. In fact, in each act, the Cape Feare (1993) episode of The Simpsons is retold three times: once round a campfire, once in an amateur theatre show, and once in an extravagant high-art pantomime, where it is now mixed promiscuously with hints of Gilbert and Sullivan, Ricky Martin, Batman, Britney Spears, Night of the Hunter (1955) and the Scorsese-made Cape Fear (1991). We watch the evolution of the episode in these retellings, with, by the third act, the regular character, Mr Burns (but who, from memory, doesn't even appear in the Cape Feare episode) becoming the chief villain, displacing the original episode's Sideshow Bob. We understand this because Mr Burns is the villainous owner Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and, in a world where the electricity has apocalyptically failed us, Mr Burns would indeed come to be the emblem of everything wrong with the world, much as, in a Climate-Changed world a hundred years hence, Jeremy Clarkson might become a by-word for evil (I'm not joking). the trivial in our culture might become the grand metonyms of a future society in exactly the same way King Lear's despair at the meaningless injustice of the world became a way to tell stories to each after Hiroshima and the Holocaust. The episode as we eventually find it is a thing of shreds and patches, of ballads, songs and snatches, oneirically combining the high and low, the comic and the tragic, music and prose; a bit like society really. Or religion. Or art.
What's so hard about this? It's what stories do. This small episode of a cartoon sitcom comes to serve a deeper function in a wholly changed world, marking a continuity with the past and a recognition of the present. The advertisements have reverted to 1950s styles and even so the cast worry about the psychology and the semiotics ('isn't Chablis one of those wines which was out of fashion but actually it's quite good?' / 'No. Common misconception but, no. Quincy, really, do you want to be a Chablis drinker?'). Jokes are stories too, little stories that punch a momentary air-hole in the transport box of my life and to forget a great joke is to feel stifled: 'Oh this is torture,' says Matt, struggling to remember a line, 'I know this is really funny'.
This might vaguely stir some memories of postmodernism but I don't think that's quite right. Yes, Mr Burns suggests we think about culture as an act of bricolage, but it's magnificently, naively, yearningly confident about storytelling about narratives, major and minor. In the first act, we begin with what sounds like (and it turns out is) the transcription of an improvisation between the actors trying to remember a famous Simpsons episode. It is night and they are around a campfire, like boy scouts, telling stories to stop themselves being scared. Because then a stranger appears and they conduct a formal - and terribly moving - process where they read out ten names of people they know whose whereabouts they don't know. Everyone in this ruined landscape, it seems, keeps a note of anyone they meet, so a ritual of any meeting is that they make this enquiry (limited to ten because, presumably, you can't monopolise the stranger's attention; we need to balance our desperation with the needs of others). The attempt to recall the episode is funny but recognisable (who hasn't at some point been in one of those conversations where people repeat their favourite lines from Simpsons or Frasier or Seinfeld or Larry Sanders? [And there should be a word for the pain you experience when someone misquotes a great line from a great sitcom; I'll ask the Germans, they're bound to have one]) but the arrival of the stranger punctures the humour and gives the scenes a kind of emotional context which both roots the scene and gives their desire to retell stories a seriousness and power. Yeah, deprived of civilisation, this is what we do. We cling to stories. Why wouldn't we? It's how we make sense of things.
In the second act, it has become formalised. We've reconstructed some modicum of capitalism: adverts to fund the company, a system of exchange to build up the scripts (they have effectively monetised crowdsourcing; Twitter: take note), they have rebuilt a process of allocating performance rights to individual episodes, there seems to be a regulatory authority. We watch a rehearsal and the comic drive of the act is part of the argument: we are watching a comically huge effort to (re)create something trivial. In a way, it's a beautiful and touching to see such efforts because doesn't this remind anyone of, well, theatre? Theatre's triviality is in its uselessness, its evasion of the cycle of use-value and exchange-value, its oddly ineffable value for its own sake (because it's art, basically - well mostly). It continues to delight me that despite everything, despite two hundred years of Gradgrindian capitalism, people still expend huge energy and effort on useless acts of theatre.
In the third act, in a way, its use-value has been discovered. It does feel as if we are watching the religious enactment of a parable and Robert Icke's and Tom Scutt's visual embodiment of this in the costumes and set suggest a mixture of witch-doctors, Shakespearean performance, and sixth-form disco. The act is perfectly pitched because we are never quite sure whether we are supposed to laugh at it (there are some brilliant jokes, some hilarious juxtapositions) or admire and be awed by it (the music is often gorgeous, the story, despite everything, becomes rather involving). It is theatre as ritual repetition and social therapy, though the stylistic tightrope that it treads again never quite says art is therapy; it teeters between utilitarianism and beauty.
Mr Burns is a brilliantly lucid bit of theatre. There's some additional fun if you are very familiar with The Simpsons but that's not vital, in fact, it's a distraction if you think it's all an in-joke for the fans. It could be anything; The Simpsons stands in for any story that embraces and touches a whole culture. It is The Bible, The Iliad, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and as such it's a challenge to how we think of art, religion, culture, the whole way of life that we move in. It's beautifully performed, too, because if it had been given a smooth, elegant London theatre production, it would have missed the point. This is a rough, crude, funny, clever, heartfelt, stupid evening of theatre and I can't recommend it highly enough.