A two and three quarter hour play based on a 20 minute cartoon – that sounds like a great id…D’oh.

Mr Burns – Almeida Theatre, until 26 July 2014

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.

TMr Burns_10his 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.

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