Stories About Stories

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In my first year of studying English at university, we were all enrolled on a course titled ‘Literary Transformations’. The blurb on the website mentioned the story of Troy, literary tradition, The Iliad, mediaeval literature. I was less than enthusiastic. In the end, it turned out to be one of the best courses I took in three years of my undergraduate degree. Because actually, more than any of those things on the website, it was about the ways in which we tell and retell stories.

I was reminded of that course twice recently at the theatre. The first occasion was during Mr Burns, which over the course of 80 odd years in the wake of an imagined global catastrophe mutates an episode of The Simpsons through a similar series of transformations to that undergone by the Troy legend. The second was at Idomeneus, a playful exploration of the fate of the eponymous Cretan king after travelling back from war in Troy. And in between I saw Adler & Gibb, a piece about narrative appropriation of an altogether more disturbing character.

These shows are all stories about stories about stories; stories that are at once about the centrality, instability and dangers of narrative. We need stories, but stories can curdle and corrupt just as easily as they can comfort.

Much of the critical response to Mr Burns has fastened on playwright Anne Washburn’s use of The Simpsons as the cultural foundation of a fledgling new human civilization. Some shook their heads at the thought that pop culture would survive over great literature, while others suggested that an intimate knowledge of the television show was required to appreciate the play. There is a certain cultural snobbery to these criticisms, as Mark Lawson has pointed out, but they also miss the point spectacularly.

The reason The Simpsons works so brilliantly as the focal point of Washburn’s game of post-apocalyptic Chinese whispers is because it is already a gleeful mash-up of different cultural references. The Cape Feare episode that gets retold in each act (first as campfire tale, then as primitive performance, and finally as a gloriously gaudy opera) is a parody of the Robert De Niro film Cape Fear – which was itself a remake of an earlier film – and also contains allusions to numerous other sources. What better starting point to demonstrate how humans recycle and repurpose culture? There is also the suggestion that our cultural inheritance is as much a product of mistake and reiteration as anything else – a troubling thought for some, perhaps, but also a liberating one. Suddenly the behemoths of high culture look a little less indestructible.

For evidence that this habit of narrative borrowing and transformation is as old as the idea of civilization itself, just swap one Homer for another. The story of Troy that we see a partial glimpse of in The Iliad and that has filtered down through Western culture over thousands of years in countless different forms is perhaps one of the most mutable myths we have. In its intelligent, multi-layered retelling of one small facet of this myth, Idomeneus – both Roland Schimmelpfennig’s script and Ellen McDougall’s playful production – is sensitively attuned to the processes by which stories become solidified and then dissolved again into countless possibilities.

As realised by McDougall, the whole thing is an inventive modern riff on the Chorus of Greek tragedy. A collection of awkward, displaced strangers wander onto the stage and begin to tell us about Idomeneus, a Cretan king and general who has been away for years fighting the Trojans and has made a terrible bargain to ensure his safe homecoming. But where tragedy usually presents us with fate and inevitability, here the story is told in all its shaky contingencies, pausing and rewinding to offer an audience all of its possible permutations. This is no longer one story, but many, the once firm outlines blurred over the centuries. And now, Idomeneus appealingly implies, we have the choice to tell it how we like; we can change the outcome.

But there is a darker side to the playful, potentially democratising stories of Mr Burns andIdomeneus. In the recovering society of Washburn’s ravaged near future, an embryonic form of capitalism is driven by the desire for stories. Half-remembered lines of old television episodes become commodities to buy and sell, while competition between storytellers is cutthroat. And there is an even more crucial way (only lightly touched upon by Mr Burns) in which the stories that provide the foundation for a new civilization can shape what that civilization eventually becomes – for good and for bad.

The danger circling the multiple stories of Idomeneus is more elusive, only occasionally glinting beneath the grins and giggles of its mischievous players. Violence – conveyed in striking visual metaphors of water, ink and chalk – always sits just underneath the narrative, insistently saying something about how we tell stories of conflict. There is an implicit comment on the insidious ability of stories like this to rile and rouse, with their undercurrents of glory, honour and destiny – an ability that is unsettled, but remains exposed.

In Adler & Gibb, which is much more critical of our storytelling strategies than either Mr Burns or Idomeneus, narrative is both a tool for manipulation and a commodity to be traded. Tim Crouch’s knottily self-referential play shows us a pair of actors representing (at first cursorily, and then increasingly naturalistically) another actor and her coach, who are preparing to make a film about a fictional pair of contemporary artists, the eponymous Adler and Gibb. Supposedly on the hunt for authenticity, they break into the house shared by the two artists in their later years, only to be confronted by an ageing Gibb. This is all framed by another story in another time, as a nervy student delivers a presentation on the lives and work of the artists. Got that?

Throughout the show, Crouch repeatedly aims his fire at the ways in which artworks and the stories surrounding them are commodified by a fiercely acquisitive capitalist economy. Scorn is poured on the art dealers, critics, journalists, filmmakers and obsessive fans who all want a bit of Adler and Gibb – not just their work, but them as individuals, or at least the romanticised story that has been cultivated around them. Everybody wants a scrap of the myth.

There is also an important comment on the shapes that our stories take. Extending the focus on theatrical form that has characterised all of his work with co-directors Andy Smith and Karl James, Crouch needles once again at representation. Throughout the first half, dialogue is directed blankly out at the audience, while two young children disrupt the workings of the theatrical machine, standing in for various elements of the narrative and substituting props – a spade for an inflatable bat or a gun for a lobster (one of many sly nods to modern art). From this base, the piece moves progressively through realism towards a kind of Hollywood hyperreality, asking difficult, brow-furrowing questions about our artistic efforts towards “truth” and “authenticity”.

In one of the show’s crucial moments, we see a screen wheeled onto the stage and witness the first kiss between Adler and Gibb cruelly snatched for the sake of cinema – or, as the actor would insist, art. “Is this the way you want your stories?” Crouch finally seems to ask, as we watch brutality in the flesh morph into high definition passion on the screen. And the answer, uncomfortably, is “well, yes”. The high stakes drama and hyperreal film that emerge in the second half of the evening are far more gripping than the cool, distanced intellectualism of the first – a high risk but brilliant strategy from Crouch, Smith and James. If we stick out the frustration of the opening scenes, we get our pay off, but at a mind-twisting price.

In all of these stories about stories, there is a further comment to make about the presence or absence of irony – one of the most familiar characteristics of the way in which we mould our narratives in the 21st century. In his chapter in Vicky Angelaki’s excellent collection Contemporary British Theatre: Breaking New Ground, Dan Rebellato intriguingly suggests that a “turning away from irony” characterises a certain strand of British drama in recent years, pointing to examples such as Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London and the work of Simon Stephens. He argues that in these plays, irony has been replaced with “a self-consciously naive sincerity”, or “radical naivety”.

While the cultural bricolage of Mr Burns might share many traits with postmodernism, what struck me about the play’s central retellings was their sincerity. Here are a group of survivors, completely without irony, piecing their world back together through the recovery of pop culture. Even the final act, with its knowing blend of references, is played remarkably straight. Irony is not exactly removed from Idomeneus, but again there is often a startling sincerity in the possibilities that the performers put forward for the characters whose story they are telling. And while it is difficult to know what to grasp onto in Crouch’s slippery play, the postmodern irony that suffuses so much contemporary art is given a ribbing at the same time as its strategies are appealingly deployed, leaving it in a problematic place. In these stories, are we turning, finally, to a new mode of sincerity?

Taken together, what these three pieces of theatre amount to is an ambivalent affirmation of storytelling. Ambivalent because stories emerge as slippery, dangerous things, as capable of betrayal as redemption. Affirmation because their very existence performs once again the importance of stories to human culture and their inherent possibility. Perhaps it’s all in the telling.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

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Mr Burns, Almeida Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

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 Simpsonsthrough 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 Simpsonsbecomes 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 Burnssuggests, 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.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.