Seeing theatre at fortyfivedownstairs, irrespective of how good it is, is always a treat. There’s something about being underground in a warehouse-type space with boarded up windows, in the middle of the CBD, that appeals to me. Over the years, I’ve witnessed that shell space transform into worlds in the future, past and present. This week I was propelled into a post-electric era of civilization, where a group of twenty to thirty somethings found themselves making the best of a bad situation. In a world where something had evidently gone terribly wrong with the nuclear power plants, leaving death and destruction in its wake, those left behind found themselves living a bleak existence. There was no more Coca-Cola. No more TV. No more Uber. What remained, or certainly what was privileged in this narrative as standing the test of time, a heartwarming concept in itself, was the ability to entertain one another with stories of a bygone era. Anne Washburn’s characters in Mr. Burns had a particular penchant for pop-culture, more specifically the American cartoon, The Simpsons. Enter the iconic character of Mr. Burns.
Contemporary audiences are all too familiar with the prospect of being transported into a world that is devoid of the pleasures afforded to us today, thanks to popular televisions shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale. This kind of content almost serves as a warning for the future and we seem to lap it up. Mr. Burns sat somewhere in this territory and as the audience undoubtedly started to ponder just how resilient they would be in a new world order where it was survival of the fittest, I started to contemplate life without cool things, like a Netflix subscription. This is a great place to put an audience and thus, the setting and context of Mr. Burns, appealed to me enormously. Had the show of choice been South Park, instead of The Simpsons, I would have been even better placed to enjoy myself.
There were five departments that worked impeccably in this production. What came together in many cases, flawlessly, were the strength of the performances, the direction (John Kachoyan), set & costume design (Sophie Woodward) and lighting design (Richard Vabre). What ultimately let Mr. Burns down for me, was the play itself which, while in parts was hugely compelling, overall, lacked structure and any sort of audience pay-off in the final act. It was also very long and it need not have been. While the third act was a feast for the eyes (the set and costume design was extraordinary), it was completely ineffective story-wise and had turned into a full-blown musical. We lost all of the characters we had become invested in, in the opening two acts. I’m certainly not someone who needs a story spoon-fed to me, or even tied up in a little bow at the end, but the third act was so separate from the rest of the play, that it thoroughly lost me. Had I not had something spectacular to look at in the set and costume design, I would have counting down the minutes until curtain call. Essentially, my attention was gripped only by a bit of the ol’ razzle dazzle.
This was a real shame for the play as a whole because the other elements were so strong and I felt as if they were leading me somewhere profound. While a majority of the performances were engaging, I particularly enjoyed three male cast members, Mark Yeates, Dylan Watson and Victory Ndukwe, in that order. The dialogue was fast and in many instances, quite complex, so the actors all did extremely well remembering it but also maintaining their American accents, no small feat.
There’s not much more to say about the play. The production of it was excellent, but the play itself was not for me, story wise. As I walked home after the show, contemplating the narrative choices of the writer, I did have to admit to myself that even though I don’t think it worked on the whole, there was something irreverent and absurd and almost Waiting For Godot-esque about it, that appealed to me. One thing is for sure, the set design was really quite spectacular and definitely worth a look. If you’re a Simpson’s fan, don’t even hesitate, you’ll love it.
Images: Sarah Walker