Regular visitors to the blog will have noticed that Civilian Theatre is often as, if not more, interested in exploring what leads a director to stage a production in the style they have chosen or why a playwright has written the play they have, than in the quality of acting or the production itself.
As such the idea of Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns is appealing. The available synopsis suggests that we are going to witness an exploration of these very topics, an insight into how myths arise and the form that mythic creations arising out of our modern cultural legacy may take. Just as Homer would have drawn on the collective memory passed down through generations of oral story-tellers to leave us with the Iliad and the Odyssey; with its world containing the larger-than-life figures of Achilles and Ajax, Paris and Hector, Washburn promises to delve into how a very different Homer will be built into the mythos of a future civilisation.
This is really interesting stuff, and the concept of three standalone acts that appear to echo the cultural development of storytelling is intriguing. The cast begins around a campfire – an updated version of those first ancient people telling each other stories round a fire, repeating them so often that they become fixed as an early truth. The second act, seven years later, has seen them morph into travelling players, spreading knowledge and culture across a divided and disparate society, before the third act, 75 years later, sees the performance fully embedded in the prevailing culture, taking on aspects of religious tradition, characters becoming symbols of good and evil, with Mr Burns emerging as a figure within modern folklore; a demonic embodiment of the dangers of nuclear power and its destructive influence.
It is the kind of play that signifies its intent early, and the signs that title each act may as well have written on them that this is a ‘big play’ tackling ‘big themes’. We know it is important because it is two and three quarter hours long and contains two intervals. Only big important plays get to have two intervals.
It is definitely an opinion-splitter and will almost certainly be championed by the kind of metropolitan hipster who carries around a well-thumbed but mainly unread copy of Infinite Jest and idolizes Douglas Copeland. For everyone else I fear it will prove to be a remarkably unentertaining evening; for it is quite a feat to develop a production that has so many interesting ideas, inspired costumes and high-concept set-pieces that returns so few engaging moments.
It promises everything that a post-modern, irony-laden society could hope for. It is laden with pop-culture touchstones and there is an almost aggressive energy in how it challenges those watching to recognise its markers. There are all kinds of in-jokes for a TV-literate audience to identify with and feel reassured that they are not out of their depth. This is cultural studies academia for the internet age and it comes as a surprise that there isn’t a section where the cast sit and reminisce about their favourite memes before trying to recreate them with a charming faux-naivety.
The play is ultimately a mass of surface over substance. There is no real attempt to interrogate the deeper issues of how and why campfire conversation turn into the stories that eventually become the legends that are sustained for generations. The one truly interesting moment in the play, where Washburn begins to actively critique her themes, occurs in the second act when a debate ensues as to the very point of performing these shows; is it for pure entertainment or is it to reach a state of truth?
This is a question that goes to the very heart of why humans tell each other stories, why we gather around campfires with other individual and reveal something our ourselves in the stories we tell. Unfortunately as soon as it is reached the play moves on and we never revisit these depths.
What it comes down to is that this a 5* idea supported by a 2* execution. Such conceits do not come along every day and it is a shame that the result is so sloppy and ill thought out. The play feels like it needs several rewrites, and a lot of editing, before it is ready for the stage. From a design perspective I can see the need for two intervals but it breaks the action too severely and one is left seriously fatigued by the end. Each of the acts works extremely well for 10-15 minutes but then the idea is played out and you realise that there is still 30 minutes of the same material to go.
This is most noticeable in act one, which seems fatally underpowered, not nearly as clever or as meaningful as it thinks it is and contains a section where characters reads out names of people they hope to find that is not only as precious as it sounds but, even more gallingly, is never explained and never referred back to later in the play.
There is no getting around the fact that Mr Burns is a flop and given the Almeida’s recent track record of success (the last five plays get West End transfer for instance) a flop on quite a grand scale. That being said I would much pay to see a playwright aim this high and fail by this much then to attend the bland, middle-class liberal borefests that seems to characterise much new writing in Britain. Based on what we can see of her imagination Washburn may well have a great play in her, and one hopes this experience doesn’t stop her from trying to write it.