Mr Burns a Post-Electric Play Review – showing the persistence of the arts

This review contains spoilers

Mr Burns a Post-Electric Play is brought to us in three acts, each showing us a glimpse of a post apocalyptic America, first in the near future, then in 7 years on, and finally, after another 75 years.
Anne Washburn’s script is an incredibly intelligent investigation into the survival of human culture in a dystopian future. Given that this genre is particularly popular in literature and film, it is inspiring to see it done so well on stage.

In the near future society has collapsed, and while it isn’t specified as to what exactly has happened we are told that it was related to nuclear disaster. We meet five characters around a fire, four of whom are trying to remember the episode of The Simpsons “Cape Feare”.
Washburn wanted to explore “what would happen to a pop culture pushed past the fall of civilisation?”. Given The Simpsons’ popularity, it is easy to imagine that it would easily come up in conversation.

The characters greet a newcomer, Gibson, with suspicion, searching him and confiscating weapons. They also read out a list of ten people to him, as this is their only way of finding out the whereabouts and safety of their loved ones (in Act 2 we are told there is an “After” population of only “1 million tops”).
Gibson hasn’t met anyone on their lists, but informs them that Boston is a mess and Denver is deserted.
7 years later they are a theatre troupe, rehearsing “Cape Feare” as well as commercials and a medley of chart hits from before the disaster.
They trade episodes with other troupes and buy lines from the public. This however is no longer as reliable as people are lying about lines sold in an attempt to get more payment.
Lithium batteries and Diet Coke are valuable commodities and in Act 3 we see Mr Burns, as a sexy villain wearing a yellow Ionising Radiation Hazard symbol on his head sipping on a can of Diet Coke.
This shows us a glimpse into a post-apocalyptic capitalism which has adapted, where lines are commodified in a form of copyright, and those who can afford it have the most access to Diet Coke and batteries needed to generate power.

In Act 3, 75 years later, we see an evolved performance of “Cape Feare” as an opera – incorporating the the music of the chart hits, and the lists of names that survivors greeted each other with – telling us about the nuclear power plant exploding in Springfield, setting the scene for their show as well as telling us about their society’s history.
The Simpsons are the only family who thought to flee the disaster, but on their houseboat Mr Burns finds them, with Itchy and Scratchy as his henchmen, and wants to kill them.
This is done brilliantly, and an eerie tension is created. The costumes have evolved since Act 2 from cartoon-ish to more developed and elegant.
As we discover more about the tragedy that struck their society through this operatic performace of Cape Feare, we see why Gibson, in Act 2, was opposed to the troupe trading their only episode with Mr Burns in it for another with another troupe, and why the CEO of a nuclear power plant would be a hated figure in their post-electric America.
This adapted version of “Cape Feare” reflects the issues faced by people in their society, such as finding meaning to live after someone has lost their family and friends.

This show would appeal to fans of The Simpsons, and there is quite a lot of quoting and acting out of scenes, but the show really digs into culture and humanity.
Culture has always existed and is borne out of society, reflecting life and various social and political issues. As well as that, much of culture also exists as entertainment and as a relief.
While in Act 2, the troupe are playing their show as true as possible to the original, it inevitably changes over the decades to reflect the history and ideas that exist in that society.
This blog often will point to political work that shows artists challenging the status quo or establishment, and while this play does not explicitly do that, “Cape Feare” of Act 3, shows how it is done, by providing a fearful billionaire villain who is a portrayal of the hated people responsible for a post-electric society.
“Cape Feare” ends in hope, with light bulbs glowing. This is revealed to be due to a performer backstage operating a bicycle generating electricity, rather than a return to having access to a power-grid.
Art and culture have important aspects to consider when being argued for by people on the left. It is vital to see that it is something that should be free for all and not used for economic gain.
We are shown the role of art through three movements in this show, from first human bonding through storytelling, to secondly using it as a relief mechanism for audiences, to thirdly a reflection of (their) present-day life and society.
These three things are equally valuable in the everyday life of people and it shows how arts and culture persist despite global collapse.
Art is an intrinsically human activity and this play elegantly displays the importance it has in our lives.
Managing to explore that while giving us many beloved Simpsons quotes, and also portraying what could be a realistic and tragic catastrophic event, is no easy feat, but Washburn has managed to pull it off excellently.

Rough Magic SEEDS is responsible for this production and they have created something very special.  Molly O’Cathain’s design is especially impressive, while the cast brilliantly carry the show through song and dialogue. This is a must see for any Simpsons fan and anyone interested in exploring the role of the arts in human nature.


Photo by Ste Murray

Finishes in Project Arts Centre on the 9th or December

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