Do not feel the need to adjust the lights. Remain calm. You’ve just entered the post-apocalypse. And the post-apocalypse has entered the stage in this almost riveting piece by American playwright Anne Washburn.
Of course, it isn’t the first play to be set after the end of the world as we know it (Hello?Endgame?!). That is almost a well-trodden genre by now, but this is certainly the first I’ve seen that manages to cover 80 years in just under three hours (counting two intermissions). Therefore its structure fascinates me. It is three beautifully well chosen snapshots of time separated by two linear spaces that allow the audience to pause and reflect, recover from shock, or lay the groundwork for us to be shocked again, suggesting something poignant and at the same time oddly hilarious about the way culture transforms and bastardises itself over time leaving us with an operatic and orgiastic blast of sound, light and colour.
We begin in what seems both familiar and at the same time quite innovative. the darkness barely allows us to make out a handful of individuals between their twenties and thirties warming themselves around a fire amidst the visual hints of a semi-industrial but deserted setting. They are sitting around doing what people do pre-apocalypse, talking about television, only this time, it is a desperate effort to maintain a grip on a collective sanity, a time when there was structure and comfort in a cartoon sitcom. “What’s that one… that one based on Cape Fear… the second Cape Fear with Robert Deniro where Juliet Lewis sucks his thumb… oh yeah and what’s the line he says… it’s… it’s…” and so on in a coordinated attempt to recreate the past through a pillar of the popular conscience, the ultimate survivor of TV shows, The Simpsons. Like Endgame, there are hints of what is outside this band of survivors: they use words like before, they describe certain cities falling, certain nuclear power plants going up, certain places being unsafe, they are distrustful and suspicious of strangers, but when trust grows they compare notes about known and remembered friends and family members who may or may not have survived the unnamed catastrophe.
It is a genuinely intriguing concept that morphs into an even more fascinating one as Washburn shows us the evolution of such a society spinning on the touchstone of Matt Groening’s quarter-century old cultural phenomenon, first nearly a decade on, when it seems to become the traveling medieval morality play of its day, and then seven and a half decades after. A bizarre futurism greets us in the last act, a gleefully odd rock opera full of mock religious austerity, a word-of-mouth handed down and rearranged version of our present, with Ziggy Stardust colour, light and joyous incoherence.
The performers are brilliant as an ensemble, in perfect sync with each other, the cast is full of brilliant character actors with wide and impressive depth. You’re fascinated by wit it has taken to compose such a piece as the last note in the musical finale rings out and breathless with the awesome power of this play’s impact. Is it catharsis? I’ve got reservations.
We don’t leave the theatre during either of the intermissions caring about anyone. That’s okay, it’s not a story. It’s social commentary. It’s the story of a post-apocalyptic century. Many of my theatregoers murmured that it would date easily and that, not being frequent watchers of The Simpsons, they didn’t get a lot of the allusions, which is fair. It feels more like long and intriguing performance art. It forces us to question ourselves and our place in society, but does it draw us in and make us care in the end? Terribly, terribly clever, but should we care just because Washburn is cerebral? It feels like one of those plays that are possibly more interesting to talk about than to actually watch. Go to be intrigued. It’s fun, but ephemeral and won’t see a revival.
Mr Burns runs until 26 July.