A lot has changed since 1989. Back then, the Berlin Wall was still standing, the internet was in its infancy and Geoffrey Palmer had just taken over from David Lange as Prime Minister.

Throughout the last 30 years of political turmoil, natural disasters, terror attacks and seismic shifts in technology and society, one constant has withstood it all: The Simpsons.

"It is a time capsule of America," says theatre-maker Oliver Driver of the television animated series. "It has referenced so many cultural icons; so many cultural icons have been in it. It's one show that has encapsulated America. Everyone relates to The Simpsons."

Driver has spent a lot of time with everyone's favourite yellow family lately, exploring a world where they've managed to outlive passing trends and fading politicians as well as 90 per cent of the world's population.

Advertisement

Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play is about as unique and bizarre as a three-eyed fish. Set five years after a cataclysmic event has wiped out much of the world, a group of American survivors come together and try to remember episodes of the long-running cartoon. Seven years later, the survivors travel the wastelands re-enacting episodes — specifically Cape Feare, a 1993 instalment which sees the family go into witness protection to escape the character Sideshow Bob. In the third act, 75 years after the troupe started travelling, The Simpsons have become gods and the plots of the episodes morphed by short-lived generations into the things of myth and legend.

Driver doubts that this would ever happen in our lifetime but in the context of Mr Burns, which he directs for Silo Theatre, he says it makes perfect sense.

"I can believe, especially in American society, if you went to go, 'what great story can we recall?', it probably isn't going to be Hamlet and isn't going to be the Iliad."

Recent studies back up his claim. A 2013 survey in the United Kingdom showed 60 per cent of people lied about reading classic novels, while a 2018 Pew Research report revealed a quarter of Americans haven't read a book at all in the past year. Meanwhile, television consumption rises as smartphones and streaming services make it all the more accessible.

However, Driver doesn't see Mr Burns, by New York playwright Anne Washburn, as a criticism of any one culture. Rather, it's all about the evolution of storytelling.
"What [Washburn's] done, which is really interesting, is that she's reset society. Story is a continuing, building thing, whereas if it just stopped, if 99 per cent of New Zealand went from four million to 4000, what would that do to our story? That's a pretty universal idea."

A packed cast helps Driver explore these themes, including Joel Tobeck in his first stage performance since 2003. Tobeck says he's wanted to return to the stage but regular television work here and in Australia has kept him busy. Then he shied away from theatre because he hadn't done it for so long.

He says Driver asked if he was interested — "begged", as the director puts it — and Tobeck decided he was up for the challenge again. Returning to daily rehearsals has been familiar rather than easy and the rest of the cast has helped get him back into the swing of things.

"Oliver and I trust each other enough that we can explore and, of course, everyone else here is open and gracious and willing to try everything, so that's a great template."

He last appeared on stage as Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a show that a then 8-year-old Ana Scotney saw in Wellington. Fifteen years later, Scotney is a rising star in her own right, having swept this year's Auckland Fringe Awards with The Contours of Heaven and had a scene-stealing role in comedy film The Breaker Upperers.

Despite her standout year, Scotney says feels like she is at the beginning of her career and her success has not affected her decision-making: "I kind of like nerd out pretty hard when it comes to performance and being able to tell a story and having the opportunity and platform to do that to the best of my ability."

The size and scale of the show, which includes singing and dancing as well as two time shifts, scared Scotney at the start of the process but she says that the themes of Mr Burns are "really apt" for younger generations.

The trio stresses themes like climate change and generational responsibility are the more prevalent part of the play, rather than being purely about The Simpsons or American culture and the play ultimately discusses the essence of stories and legends.

"I love that the way Homer in The Simpsons is called Homer," Scotney says. "It gets you thinking about his role as the everyman and thinking about the Odyssey and then thinking about the Iliad, and those bards and storytellers speaking to the everyman, telling them these fables. What I love about where we go in this play, is by the third act, that's the evolution.

Lowdown
What: Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play
Where and when: Rangatira at Q Theatre, Thursday, September 13 — Saturday, September 29