BWW Reviews: MR BURNS, Almeida Theatre, June 12 2014
Anne Washburn's Mr Burns at the Almeida Theatre is one of the boldest, most intellectually complex plays to be found on a London stage - and many theatregoers will probably disdain it for celebrating 'low culture'. They are missing the point by about 150 miles.
Act One, lit solely by a gas fire around which the cast huddles, introduces a small group of what we quickly learn to be survivors of a series of nuclear events across America. They are brought together by a need for companionship and, crucially, to pool information. They exchange lists of people they have met and know to be alive, hoping to find a familiar name on someone else's manifest. Most importantly, they work together to tell a story. In Washburn's hyper-naturalistic dialogue, deftly delivered by Adrian der Gregorian and Annabel Scholey, they try and piece together a classic episode of The Simpsons - familiarity with the episode in question is useful, possibly essential, to experience the group's pleasure in rediscovering choice gags and line readings. It is not necessary to understand the play. Indeed, expect scorn from critics unable to make heads or tails of the frequent pop culture references - their relevance is in their nature as evolving entities, not in their specific content.
Act Two moves ahead seven years, and the now expanded group has become one of several repertory companies travelling the country, recreating old television series and commercials for fellow survivors in need of the familiar. The pop culture of the past becomes venerated and even carries financial value.
Act Three fast forwards a further 70 years to a time when fragments of The Simpsons, pop music and Gilbert and Sullivan have become enshrined in ritual and myth, exalted and elevated to near-religious status. Orlando Gough and Michael Henry's tragic operetta version of Bart Simpson's confrontation with Mr Burns himself is as remarkable and unlikely a piece of theatre as you will see for a long time.
The cast and creative team do an exemplary job in bringing together this disparate smorgasbord. Der Gregorian's loud, anxious Matt and Demetri Goritsas as the newcomer Gibson are particularly impressive from the beginning. Jenna Russell, in a difficult role that grows as the show progresses to a tragic hero of Wagnerian proportions, delivers a first-class performance. On paper, what is required of her in the third act could be laughable; Russell creates a powerful, deeply moving climax to the show.
Equally impressive are Robert Icke's direction and Tom Scutt's design. Icke maintains the naturalism inherent in the script, in spite of the increasingly obtuse situations presented by the story, vital in grounding proceedings. Scutt's work is glorious, moving from rough simplicity to opulence as the endored cast emerges for Act Three.
This is an ambitious show, dealing with such a wealth of themes that to explore Washburn's treatment of all of them here would be impossible. At its heart, Mr Burns is about storytelling, and humankind's cataclysm-enduring need for stories. The playwright uses an example of 'low culture', a popular cartoon, as her exemplar story, and presents this same source in three contexts, three different stages of 'Chinese whispers'. The details become transmogrified and muddled with other references, but the constant is the need to tell the story: for entertainment, for commerce, for courage in the face of adversity, there will always be stories.
Kudos to Goold and the Almeida for bringing this audacious, thought-provoking work to the Almeida. It is daring, challenging and entirely without equal - whether it will find favour with audiences is an entirely different story.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan