Remember the one with Cape Fear? The parody of the film – the one with Robert De Niro, not the other one. There’s something about a tattoo. Maybe two tattoos? And a court case, there’s definitely a scene in a courtroom. Anyway, the Simpsons end up on a houseboat. They’re running away from something … Bart is receiving death threats, that’s it. They’re written in blood – no, tomato ketchup. Sideshow Bob is trying to kill him. Or is it Mr Burns?
This is the kind of stuttering, stumbling salvage that forms the patchwork fabric of Anne Washburn’s play, which mutates one iconic episode of The Simpsons through a game of post-apocalyptic Chinese whispers. It’s cultural memory as mash-up. Gilbert and Sullivan by way of Bart and Lisa.
In the aftermath of an unspecified, civilization-splintering disaster – the hints suggest part pandemic, part nuclear catastrophe – a group of survivors are clustered around a fire. For comfort, they turn not to religion, but to pop culture. As flows and eddies of misinformation swirl around them, The Simpsons becomes a collective life raft. Memory is salvation.
Seven years later, as society is starting to wonkily slot itself back together, the television programmes (and commercials) of Before are big business. The characters we met in the first scene are now a makeshift theatre troupe scratching a living from the sale of nostalgia – and competition is fierce. Arguments erupt about which wine is most unchallengingly evocative (Chablis, apparently) and which pop hits to include in the ad-break music medley.
By the final act, which fast forwards another 75 years, the campfire story has gone through countless iterations and its batshit crazy telling has become a giddy whirl of cultural fragments. Director Robert Icke and designer Tom Scutt construct a teetering edifice of narrative and aesthetic bric-a-brac, from tattered scraps of Americana to oddly distorted movie allusions. Opera bleeds into Livin La Vida Loca. Eminem meets Britney. It’s blink-and-you-miss-the-reference fast, equal parts dazzling and disorienting. Where was that snippet of a melody from? Was that a nod to Peter Pan? How does the rest of that line go?
This kind of chaotic cultural bricolage will be familiar for 21st century viewers, but here it receives a crucial twist. Mr Burns is, as per its subtitle, post-electric rather than post-modern. There is no irony; this is a society earnestly retelling its founding cultural myth. And while some may shake their heads at the idea that it is The Simpsons rather than Shakespeare that survives the fall of civilization, Washburn has found a canny focus for teasing out the ways in which humans recycle and repurpose stories – a habit as old as the species. It’s just another kind of Homeric epic.
And there’s some intellectual weight behind the cultural cutting and pasting. Washburn’s imagined post-apocalypse is both a hymn to and an uncomfortable indictment of the artistic detritus that resiliently endures. Civilization, Mr Burns suggests, is built on stories – but so is commerce and exploitation. Narrative sells.
It’s a thread that could be stretched further in Icke’s production, which sometimes gets distracted by its surface. The overwhelming range of references can obscure the fascinating cultural mutation at work, while the closing act is so shimmeringly strange that it is easy to get lost amid the woozy throng of pop culture. But while it may be a head-rush of a show, its ideas remain fizzing away for long after.