What would remain of our civilisation should a knockout blow from fate or self-inflicted catastrophe prod us to confront Armageddon? It is the question that has detained millenarians, legacy-seekers and doom-mongers — and inspired one of the most dissected and applauded theatrical events in New York last year, Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play.
Aficionados of The Simpsons will recognise the eponymous anti-hero as the incarnation of corporate evil in the snarky TV cartoon series. He pops up in various guises in Anne Washburn’s tripartite drama-cum-musical, a spirited meditation on a post-apocalyptic America. Think Margaret Atwood without the laughs.
The result is a haunting exercise in Homeric story-telling and rediscovery of the oral tradition as an antidote to despair. Like the best non-realist theatre Mr Burns creates a world that feels coherent, even as its improbabilities abound. The second act sees the fractious bunch trying to eke out an existence as a travelling theatre troupe, haggling over rights to jokes (copyright having been obliterated, along with Diet Coke and Chablis). As they squabble over roles, the full horror of their plight as survivors in a blasted land creeps up slowly on us. Everyone carries a notebook of names and details of loved ones. No one expects them to return.
The final act mixes elements of Japanese Noh drama, a pageant of Gilbert and Sullivan jocularity and the Faustian battle between good and evil, which brings us back to (yes) Mr Burns and Bart Simpson. This layering of plots and genres — there is little onstage violence, but angst suffuses every scene — makes for an often baffling experience. Jaunty set pieces with spontaneous renditions of disco and rap hits (choreographed sharply by Ann Yee) are undercut by sinister shifts and a gunshot so perfectly timed that half of us in the front rows jumped out of our seats.
Jenna Russell, who excelled in the Menier’s brilliant Merrily We Roll Along, belts out the lead, while Robert Icke, the Almeida’s new associate director, sets a cracking pace, with ironic nods to the modes and mannerisms of Broadway.
The only question is what this is all doing on stage in North London. The audience at the Almeida sometimes seemed to be rather gamely going along with the shenanigans, rather than fully immersed. But theatre is a transatlantic trade these days and what is the talk of the town in Manhattan swiftly ends up in N1. Like The Book of Mormon, Mr Burns raises the game for musical theatre in London. You might be well advised to pre-book a soothing Chablis for frayed nerves afterwards.
While we’re on the subject of American imports, David Lindsay-Abaire’s modern morality play Good People looks at financial desperation and social class with some nifty twists in the tale. In impecunious south Boston, Margie seeks out her old lover Mike (Lloyd Owen), a successful fertility specialist, and gets mistaken for a caterer by his sophisticated wife.
The farce that ensues is shot through with biting reflections on divided classes and Lindsay-Abaire’s nagging question about how far mere goodness gets you in the world. “To be good and yet to live, tore me in half like a thunderbolt,” says Brecht’s heroine in The Good Person of Szechuan. Now Good People asks the same uncomfortable question about life on the borderline of modern poverty. If its message is predictably gloomy about capitalism, it is enlivened by Margie’s runaway tongue and the tangible unease of poor Mike, who cannot quite escape his humble roots nor shake off Margie. If there is one surprisingly successful transfer of the year to the West End, Good People is it.
Down the river at the Globe, the crowds are massing for the summer delights of getting rained on during Shakespeare and a blast of Antony and Cleopatra. Eve Best is the Globe’s most successful repeat performer — she gave us an unforgettable turn as Beatrice in 2011 and comes with a ready-made fan base for her role as the cynically alluring Dr O’Hara in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie.
Many a talented Shakespearean has come a cropper coping with the round stage and fidgety audiences of day-trippers on the Globe’s hideously uncomfortable cushions. But Best is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word. Here she grasps the sensual impatience of Cleopatra and the mercurial force of her desires, all tumbling locks and fierce demands. Less well defined is the terrible might of a majesty whose whims can “unpeople Egypt”. But when she grabs a member of the audience and bestows a zesty kiss on him, Best produces the crackle of connection that very few actors can summon at will.
Jonathan Munby’s production works hard to inject life into a work that can be ponderous. Occasionally, the result threatens to tilt too close to farce and memories of the Carry On films mean that the spectre of Sid James hovers uncomfortably over the enterprise. Clive Wood’s Antony, however, is a gruff, grandiose figure, bestriding empire while fatally blind to the consequences of passion. The Globe’s audiences love a great supporting cast and are not disappointed. Phil Daniels’s free-wheeling Enobarbus and Jonathan Bonnici’s wry Soothsayer earn their applause — deft foils to the vast self-absorption of history’s most high-maintenance lovers.