Wednesday 23 July 2014

Mr Burns

Almeida, London
9th July 2014 matinee

Anne Washburns’ Mr Burns – a Post-Electric Play is entertaining, full of big ideas, well performed by a cast who gives it its heart, and ingeniously designed by Tom Scutt’s creative flair. However, the play’s ideas are perhaps under-explored and left me feeling a tad underwhelmed.

Where to start with Mr Burns: a play about The Simpsons, a play about storytelling, a play about cultural transmission. Washburn states that she probably chose The Simpsons randomly yet it (particularly this episode) is an extremely interesting choice. The Cape Feare episode (1993) sees Sideshow Bob out to kill Bart, which in turn means that the Simpsons have to leave Springfield to live on a houseboat in order to escape the killer clown. Little do they know that he has followed them. In the night, he ties the family up, sets the boat along the river and plans to murder Bart, but is distracted by Bart’s request to hear him sing a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The boat crashes into a verge where Chief Wiggum is ready to arrest Sideshow Bob. The episode spoofs the 1991 Scorsese film Cape Fear (itself a remake of the 1962 film), which makes the episode and play very meta-theatrical. The Simpsons, by the way, is an excellent subject for a play. More than just a popular cartoon, each episode (particularly the earlier seasons) features snippets of genius wit with deeper-rooted ironies that aren’t just to be dismissed as a bit of cartoon humour. As a post-modern cartoon it references other bits of popular culture, politics and much more. Furthermore, as a much-loved episode, it is a good basis for a play, but there is much more to Washburn’s work.

Act one (in the obscure setting of ‘soon’), is set in a not-so-distant future America, after the apocalyptic disaster of the Nuclear power stations failing (Mr Burns owns the Nuclear Power Plant in The Simpsons). In near-darkness, we meet a group of people gathered around a campfire, collectively remembering this particular episode. Some remember it better than others, some remember bits wrong (such as Sideshow Bob writing with actual blood rather than ketchup and there being eels rather than piranhas in the river), some struggle to remember bits at all. They bond through the episode, as seen in one character’s late entrance which is greeted with pointing guns at him. This is a setting where they are unsure of what’s on the outside, don’t know where their loved ones are and where the number one challenge is to survive. And as fascinating as the apocalypse exposition is, it does have a tendency to slow the play down with crowbarred emotion, particularly during Maria’s account of getting some duct tape, even if it is well-performed by Annabel Scholey.

Act 2, set 7 years later, sees the same group of survivors in a shack of a theatre (with Tom Scutt’s design coming over the proscenium into the auditorium) as part of a touring theatre company playing episodes of The Simpsons. The world is now without electricity, so they re-imagine episodes with home-made props, complete with their own commercials. Even though the world may have started again, it is clear that commercialisation still exists: the theatre groups trade in lines from The Simpsons and fight over who has written certain jokes. It is interesting how Washburn implies that survivors revel in recreations of sitcoms and other popular TV shows to perhaps remember the pre-Apocalypse world and to find comfort in them. And although the world of sitcoms may be comforting, it might mean that other literature and culture are compromised:

I find it a melancholy thought that art, architecture and literature may perish in the collective memory but a popular TV show will be the last relic of western civilisation
                                                                                                Michael Billington, 2014[1]

Yet Shakespeare groups do exist in this world even if Western pop culture is what Washburn considers will be grasped hold of as important for existence. It’s an interesting point, and in fact the play is at its best when delving into this idea of cultural transmission. Indeed, just because The Simpsons is from the mainstream world of television, it doesn’t mean it isn’t culturally credible. Episodes that are discussed for performance in the second act include Heretic Homer, Springfield Files, Streetcar Named Marge, and Much Apu about Nothing. The meta-theatricality is clear and Mr Burns is at its most fascinating when working at this level. What a richly rewarding idea to examine the place of classic, modern classic and popular culture in a post-disaster America through the optic of a popular cartoon. It has huge potential but gets lost on the way. Indeed the lookalike costumes, paper mache Simpsons car and the recreation of the funny Mr Thompson scene shows off how this futuristic theatre company might work. But the act then tangles itself up in acting out commercials and creating medleys of popular music. It’s entertaining and imaginative but it could focus more on the episode and it’s usage in America post-disaster. However, in Washburn’s defence, the Cape Feare Simpsons episode is a reworking of the movie but it then goes off to also reference Gilbert and Sullivan songs. Mr Burns similarly brings in other material but perhaps at the extent of it being bogged down (Demetri Goritsas’ version of Three Little Maids from School, however, is impressive). The act ends in gunmen in the auditorium and firing onto the stage. It’s an unnerving reminder of the world outside the theatre and nicely suggests how theatre can be escapist but it is another reminder of how the play can get stuck in its exposition.

Act three, set 75 years later, is a full-on opera with highly stylized costumes with little resemblance of but strong groundings in the original Simpsons characters. The costumes and ship design don’t resemble that of the Cape Feare episode as much as the New York production but instead carries a more tribal feel: Marge Simpson seems more tribal warrior than middle-of-the-road housewife. The characters now have a quasi-religious status and Springfield is not just a place but an idealised time before the disaster. Orlando Gough’s and Michael Henry’s music in this act elevates the play to being exhilarating. Jenna Russell in particular impresses as she shows the vulnerable side to Bart in ‘It’s the End of Everything’. Mr Burns, not Sideshow Bob, is the villain of this musical act and there is a suggestion that this could be viewed as some Simpsons-inspired allegory in the future. It is fascinating and its mutation from the original episode suggests how culture transcends through the generations and how it can be made anew. Ultimately, we see how people use pop culture to validate and celebrate their history.

The play ends with Mr Burns powering the theatre on a generator bike, as a globe ascends to the top of the fairy light-lit theatre. As he slows down the theatre plunges into the darkness in which it started, suggesting a cyclical nature. It’s a beautiful moment and is another exciting theatrical image in a play full of them. And although it touches upon brilliance at times, the fast-paced, ambitious ingenuity of Mr Burns is perhaps the thing which stops it from focusing on interesting, specific ideas.

After a string of hits at the Almeida from Chimerica to King Charles III, Mr Burns may not be getting a West End transfer yet its debates and Twitter reactions continues the theatre’s recent track record of producing engaging, provocative theatre.

On another note, I found my first trip to the Almeida not to be the most welcoming. Although I was impressed with the building and the theatre’s mission statement, I found some staff members to be a bit unwelcoming.

There’s probably so much more to say about Mr Burns and I’ll probably blog on the storytelling in the play. The play may only be 3 stars here, but I highly recommend it for its ideas, Robin Icke’s entertaining production, first-class cast, Gough and Henry’s music, and Tom Scutt’s design.

Mr Burns is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 26th July, 2014.


Tuesday 8 July 2014

Great Britain

National Theatre Lyttelton, London
5th July 2014 matinee

Richard Bean’s new play about the phone hacking scandal – which wasn’t announced until after the trial was over – is as bold and funny as his previous plays and allows the audience to share laughter and anger caused by the corrupt ways of tabloid newspapers.

There had been rumours about the National Theatre workshopping a play about phone hacking, but when the trial’s verdicts were announced two weeks ago the theatre launched a quick turn-around from announcing the play to opening night to almost immediately announcing a West End transfer. And Nicholas Hytner’s well-paced production lives up to its hype. The play focuses on the workings of a daily tabloid newspaper, The Free Press (although there are clear echoes to real papers and their employees). It’s a paper that has a cardboard cut-out of Terry and Tracy who represent their typical readership; the editor firmly points out that Terry is a ‘scaffolder. Into football. Cunt’. It’s the sort of paper to entice readers with ‘page 7’ nudity, cheap prices and bigot-goading, flash headlines. Bean’s brash dialogue effectively captures the hunger for the ‘double scum’ story for which the paper yearns every day.

When news editor Paige Britain (brilliantly played by Billie Piper) discovers how to hack voicemail messages to build exclusive stories, the sales of the paper go up as do their accolades. But when they use this technique to hack the phone of Keiron Mills, who they believe has kidnapped and murdered his two children, they falsely imprison him which leads to his brutal murder. The case, although fictional, clearly has similarities with the Millie Dowler murder investigation which led to the shutting-down of the News of the World and, likewise, the end of The Free Press soon escalates quickly.

What is really interesting about the play is that it hints at the reason why the press, police, politicians and even a solicitor who unearthed the hacking easily sacrifice their position of trust. Money partly comes into the ratio but it is also to do with the search for power in business: Paige Britain talks of an ‘invite to the party’ being her impetus.  And so we see some of the country’s more powerful figures in each other’s pockets, palms and beds and doing deals in rooms to forge their path to the top. The satire is not only funny but it seems spot on in its depiction of a tabloid newspaper’s rule to put breaking the story before solving the crime. Likewise, we see how the paper encourages what they apparently abhor, here being an example of where darkness lies beneath the humour. In fact the fast-paced first scene which includes a story of a ‘font fiddling’ vicar is underscored by the editor coldly announcing that he’s killed himself. To the newsroom, it comes as nothing much more than a turn in the story but, with the help of Grant Olding’s effective music, it leaves the audience silent with the realisation of the paper’s dispassion. It is particularly striking, but not really surprising, when someone comments that the media run the country. In Great Britain, they certainly do until they go too far and Bean is right when it comes to the difference between celebrities’ phones being hacked and murder victims.

Billie Piper plays the abhorrent Britain with utter conviction but also allows us to warm to her through lengthy asides and a certain allure. Robert Glenister is a powerful stage presence as the hilarious Cockney editor who gets a hard-on from headline alliteration and runs ‘cunt of the month’ competitions in the office, but who also shows a hint of dissatisfaction in his promotion to TV executive. Equally funny is Aaron Neil as the incompetent police officer, willing to get tasered as part of his clueless press conferences. Through him, there is a touch of humour that reminded me of Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy’s unwitting puns. Neil also features in his own viral videos played as part of 59 Productions’ extremely impressive mid-scene VTs. Jo Dockery also pleases with her annoying Rebekah Brooks-inspired Virginia White. When the police ransack the offices, she stands amongst the panic-ridden journalists trying to smash their laptops, defensively shouting ‘what have we done?!’ Her love for horses and claims that she genuinely runs a campaigning newspaper make her look as stupid as it does innocent – a brilliant bit of satire. There is also strong work from Dermot Crowley and Oliver Chris, but the entire cast play this riotous play with the right energy. Hytner’s production excellently captures the machine-like, daily workings of the office (with characters getting to their desks before the play even starts) and Tim Hatley’s smart designs are very compelling.

It’s not perfect: the title seems a bit too obvious but does interestingly draw on ideas of nationhood that Bean’s England People Very Nice is interested. Also, as others have mentioned, the end only hints at the future for Paige Britain rather than offering a view on the future of the state of the press or the nation. However, as an overview of the corruption amongst the press, police and politicians it satisfies in entertainment value as well as exploring corrupt public figures and the public’s hunger for the titillating. Overall, Great Britain is satirical, riveting and essential theatre.

Great Britain runs at the Lyttelton, National Theatre until 23rd August before transferring to the West End’s Theatre Royal, Haymarket on 10th September where it runs until 10th January, 2015.