If the abundance of meme pages are anything to go by, our collective unconscious has been deeply infected by The Simpsons. In America, Ireland, and anywhere else that had access to TVs over the past twenty years, the yellow-skinned family have left their mark. This shared cultural knowledge is thoroughly exploited by Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which caused a stir during its American debut, and has finally reached Ireland in the form of Rough Magic’s SEEDS, a showcase that places a spotlight on young Irish talent. The production is set in the aftermath of a global catastrophe. Following the collapse of society, a group of survivors struggle to remember the details of The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare”, and, as time passes, their warped recollections take on powerful cultural significance.
Umberto Eco said of Casablanca: “the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.” In Mr Burns, the references are having a ball, stretching beyond the classic family sitcom into chart hits, hokey advertisements and Gilbert and Sullivan numbers. These references are more powerful than clichés because they touch on a concrete sense of shared past, and in the world of Mr Burns, that’s all you can rely on to get you through the day. With a phenomenal cast of newcomers, Mr Burns transforms our shared nostalgia into tangible ritual.
And unlike a lot of highfalutin postmodern texts, Mr Burns never gets so caught up in metaness that it forgets to entertain. The show is consistently hysterical and disturbing over its two and a half hours, engaging unflinchingly with the bleakness of its world, but never allowing us or its characters to fully succumb to hopelessness. The strength of the material is heightened by incredible production design, featuring sets, and props so elaborate that it’s worth sitting through the intermissions just to watch the scene changes.
Mr Burns asks us: if the world ended tomorrow, what would we want to hold on to? What would we carry with us into the apocalypse to make life bearable? And if wine commercials and 90s cartoons were all that remained, where would we go on from there?