Mr Burns

By Anne Washburn
Director Imara Savage

  • Venue Upstairs Theatre
  • Dates 19 May – 25 June 2017
  • Duration 2 hours and 10 mins (inc. interval)


    A catastrophe has brought the civilised world to an end. Survivors huddle around a fire, pondering the world without electricity, and the things they will never see again. To console themselves, they piece together an episode of The Simpsons, clinging to one of the few memories they all share.

    Fast forward seven years and we’re in a post-apocalyptic society. A troupe of players wander the land, providing connection with a mythic past – by playing out the classic Simpsons episodes: Springfield has become a Golden Age.

    Fast forward a generation. A feudal world of sorts has sprung from the ruins, and at its core is an intense religion of musical theatre, featuring a pantheon of strangely recognisable gods…

    A play about the stories we tell ourselves, about what is lasting, and what is ephemeral.

    There’s a lot of great entertainments in the season this year but Mr Burns is just extraordinary. It manages to be a quite profound play about the brutal times we’re entering into, but it does so with such inventiveness and showmanship that the world outside the theatre could end and you wouldn’t notice. And by the way, Mitchell Butel is too talented at too many different things. Come and see him act and sing and dance at Belvoir. Sometimes all at once! – Eamon

    Co-produced with State Theatre Company South Australia

    This production contains strobes, haze, smoke, loud noises, blood, guns and adult themes.


    Writer Anne Washburn
    Score by Michael Friedman
    Lyrics by Anne Washburn
    Director Imara Savage
    Musical Director Carol Young
    Set and Costume Designer Jonathon Oxlade
    Lighting Designer Chris Petridis
    Sound Designer Jeremy Silver
    Choreographer Lucas Jervies
    Fight Choreographer Scott Witt
    Dialect Coach Paige Walker
    Stage Manager Natalie Moir
    Assistant Stage Manager Vanessa Martin


    Paula Arundell
    Mitchell Butel
    Esther Hannaford
    Jude Henshall
    Brent Hill
    Ezra Juanta
    Jacqy Phillips

    Rehearsal images by Brett Boardman
    • Writer’s Note: Anne Washburn

      This play comes from an idea which had been knocking around in my head for years: I wanted to take a pop culture narrative and see what it meant, and how it changed, after the fall of Civilisation.

      I knew I wanted to start with an act of recollection, with a group of survivors trying to piece together a TV episode. And to do that, I wanted to work with a group of actors; remembering is complicated; I could make remembering up, but it would never be as rich and complex as the real thing.

      In 2008, Steve Cosson of The Civilians, an investigative theatre group of which I am a member, approached me about applying for a commission. I suggested this project – which had now somehow become about The Simpsons; as I remember it, Friends, Cheers, Seinfeld, were all in the mix – any show with a large and dedicated viewership.

      It now seems like a really fortunate choice: if any show has the bones for post-apocalyptic survival, it’s The Simpsons. So many people enjoy remembering it: retelling it, quoting it, doing the voices, the gestures; even a terribly reduced population should be able to do a reliable job of putting it back together. And the characters, when you think about them, are durable archetypes – Bart is a Trickster, Homer the Holy Fool, Marge, I suppose, is a kind of long-suffering Madonna, and then the inhabitants of Springfield are an almost endlessly rich supply of human (and non-human) personalities.

      That summer, Clubbed Thumb – a downtown theatre company in New York – had gotten hold of a free rehearsal space they were loaning out – a disused bank vault in a sub-basement deep under Wall Street. We met there, far underground and out of cell phone range, in a room with thick, thick doors and those wheel handles, under a range of flickering fluorescent lights, and asked a group of Civilians actors to remember Simpsons episodes as best they could.  We also asked them to be mindful of the necessities of storytelling; if they couldn’t remember a detail, or a plot segue, they should – as one would, in the wild, in front of a small audience – make something up. The episode they remembered most vividly was “Cape Feare,” a parody of the Scorsese remake of the film Cape Fear, with Robert De Niro playing the role originated by Robert Mitchum. The resulting narrative, which I pieced together from several attempts, is… fairly accurate, and I used it to begin the play.

      There are all kinds of storytelling. There are stories we create from the air, for fun, and there are the stories which are meant to be acts of remembering.  Our culture – national, family, peer, personal – is defined, not so much by what has happened to us, but by how we remember it, and the story we create from that memory. And since we don’t really create stories from the air – since all stories, no matter how fanciful, are in some way constructed from our experiences, real or imagined – all storytelling is a remaking of our past in order to create our future.

    • Director’s Note: Imara Savage

      After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world. Philip Pullman 

      How to begin to write about the ‘play’ that is Mr Burns. Perhaps I’ll start by saying that I’m not sure it is a ‘play’ at all, but rather an investigation piece that seeks to answer the question: what happens to a story if it’s pushed past the point of the apocalypse? In a world devoid of Google and Wikipedia, how do our stories endure and change? How does the popular culture of one time become the high art and mythology of another? And how do we use the popular entertainment of our time to make sense of our past in order to heal for the future?

      As stand-alone acts in a traditional three-act structure, the work has little pay off; it is the cumulative effect of Anne Washburn’s work where the magic and the power lie. In Act 1, a group of survivors in a post-electric age try to reconstruct The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare” from memory. By Act 2, this episode is being performed as a live stage show complete with commercials of products from a bygone era and mashups of chart hits. Act 3 takes what was once popular entertainment and/or advertising, and is now staged as something akin to a medieval Passion Play, with familiar narratives of good versus evil, and tropes that interweave pantomime, religious ceremony, ritual, Greek chorus, the American Broadway musical, science fiction and more. Leitmotifs from Act 1 and 2, snatches of commercials and pop songs, and quotes from popular movies, have become part of a ceremonial drama by Act 3. Eminem is elevated to the heights of a Hamlet soliloquy. And so the web of what one journalist described as a “Russian doll of meta intertextuality” begins…

      The work speaks to the unreliability of memory and how ideas, sounds, colours, text and images are filtered through time. As such I imagine Washburn’s intent was about the sharing of a cultural nostalgia where we (the audience) gain joy from seeing how an idea morphs, changes, fragments and takes on different meanings and layers through time and circumstance, and also due to the needs of the tellers and observers. It also seeks to answer the question, ‘what is the role of the artist and storyteller in a time of crisis?’ It was after all Anne Washburn’s response to September 11.

      Never have I had more difficulty trying to explain what something is about, perhaps in even doing so it reduces the enormous scope and complexity of what the writer is investigating. Mr Burns is not a play of plot or even characters, it’s a play of ideas, and there are a lot of them. At its heart it speaks to me of the enduring power of stories, their ability to lift us up and cleanse our spirits in times of confusion and chaos. From the humble beginnings around a campfire to the Greek amphitheatre and beyond. This is Washburn’s love letter to the theatre and ours too.

      We hope you enjoy.


    • Podcast

      Director Imara Savage and actors Mitchell Butel and Jude Henshall explore the big ideas in Anne Washburn’s wildly inventive play.

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