Playwright Anne Washburn enjoying 'marmite' appeal of the Almedia's Mr Burns
PUBLISHED: 06:26 19 June 2014 | UPDATED: 12:17 20 June 2014
After the sky-high production values of recent blockbusters like American Psycho and 1984, the latest show to come out of the Almeida might come as a bit of a surprise.
Four figures hunched around a campfire, desperately trying to retell an entire Simpsons’ episode from memory – the premise sounds, well, positively primitive.
A madcap and macabre tale penned by Californian Anne Washburn, Mr Burns opened last week on the back of an acclaimed run within New York’s fringe circuit two years ago.
Set in a post-apocalyptic America, it charts the development of The Simpsons’ episode Cape Feare over the years, as it slowly evolves into a folk tale while society attempts to rebuild itself.
For Washburn, the story’s playful nature came from a simple hypothesis.
“I think I was just curious as to how this story would change over time,” she says. “Immediately after the apocalypse, people would need it because it would stand as something deeply assuring, a soothing reminder of a time when you weren’t horrified and running for your life.
“And then these questions began to emerge as to which stories last and which don’t over the years.
“I think all stories do last, just in different forms, but what would people latch onto and what would they let go of? And what would be their reasons for doing this?
“The reasons for discussing The Simpsons in the first act, for example, are very different to the reasons for discussing The Simpsons in the third act.”
Unusually, when Washburn began to think about scripting the story, she gathered together a group of actors and let their memories form the basis of the episode re-telling’s dialogue in the first act.
Finding a discontinued bank vault underneath Wall Street, they “hunkered down” in faux apocalyptic conditions, trying to see which Simpsons’ episode they could remember the most scenes from.
“I knew that I wanted to start the play with transcribed material of people trying to remember, just because that thought process is incredibly verbal and dynamic.
“They tried to come up with a number of episodes, but the one they did best with was Cape Feare. They sort of went through it a number of times with different people leading the telling and every time they did, it changed a little.
“They remembered stuff and, although they weren’t aware of it, they were also making stuff up.
Ideally, Washburn continues, when you write a play you are always surprised, and this was the case when she began to pen and redraft the later parts of Mr Burns.
Described by the New York Times as “a show so smart it makes your head spin”, the American admits the play’s experimental nature has often proved divisive; in fact, having brought it to London, she expresses affection for an English description of it as a “Marmite play”.
As a student, Washburn grew up with a love of traditional theatre, but it was not until college that she was exposed to truly contemporary styles.
After joining collaborative group The Civilians, she staged her first play in a Seattle art gallery-turned-café and still regards these “basement” – or “fringe” – environments as the venues most open to adventurous writing.
The previous run of Mr Burns drew praise from The Simpsons episode’s original writer, Jon Vitti, while fans of the cartoon show have loved and hated it in equal measure.
Washburn adds that even audiences who had never seen the television series have had similar reactions to the story, which mixes humour and gritty poignancy in equal measure.
“There’s a lot of humour in dark times,” says the writer. “I think people reach for it as soon as they can and since the play takes place some weeks or months after this apocalyptic event has played out, they feel able to do so.
“I remember in New York, when I was stationed there during 9/11, there was a period of three or four days where people were so stunned that there were just no jokes or humour whatsoever.
“But then the Onion, after not publishing their paper for a week, released their next issue and immediately had some brilliantly funny things to say which acknowledged the horror, but was actually also hilarious.
“And what a sigh of relief that was, because, in an odd way it felt like the first truthful thing anyone had said about it. And you thought: All right, well at least someone’s prepared to talk about this and process this.
“If you can laugh about something, that’s the moment you can begin to step away from it, to an extent.”
Mr Burns runs at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, Islington, until July 26. Visit almeida.co.uk.