Interview: Jude Henshall on Mr Burns - a Post-Electric Play

Jude Henshall Mr Burns State Theatre 2017State Theatre Company and Belvoir. The Space Theatre. From 22 Apr 2017


“What would happen if the electricity grid went down?” asks award-winning Adelaide actress Jude Henshall?

Of all people exposed to the plotline of the American play, Mr Burns - a Post-Electric Play, South Australians might have the most vivid foothold on apprehension. 

Experience of the dismay and disorder of blackouts and a failing electricity system are fresh in the memories along with emotions of fear and ire. 

“But what if it was not for just five days but for ever,” says Henshall.


In Anne Washburn’s play, now in production with State Theatre and Belvoir, the lights go out and stay out. There has been a massive catastrophe.

“She does not tell us what it was,” says Henshall.

“There is no talk of terrorism just that the grid goes down. No clues as to what went before. There are lots of unknowns.

“The play is about a group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world without Google, without computers, without phones, without things we’ve put our faith in - food, safe water, keeping computer rooms cool, keeping seed banks refrigerated, dealing with the effect of disaster…”


It is a dark comedy. There’s a streak of sci-fi and fantasy and a powerful meditation on the role that popular culture plays in our lives and the way memories operate, the way myths evolve and how resourceful humanity must be in a crisis.


The play also is about the cartoon series, The Simpsons, and is named after one of its characters, Mr Burns.

Henshall explains that it is divided into three distinctive acts.

The first one describes the survivors confronting this post-apocalyptic world.


Act II, is seven years later when the survivors have collected episodes of The Simpsons. The survivors have formed a theatre troupe and perform them.

Here, the play becomes an examination of how popular culture is inculcated into people, what people can recall and piece together over the years, how oral traditions can grow, how important story-telling is...


Act III is 75 years later, the next generation and time has brought with it wild embellishments. The famous Simpson’s Cape Feare episode is performed, now in lavish song and dance with fantastic costumes.

Henshall describes it as a great and glorious high of song and dance numbers. 

“The whole third act is sung,” she says.

“It is a huge musical medley - Beyonce, Kanye, Lady Gaga… all the pop icons of the past decade."


But, from the thrill of glitter, the play is pulled back "to that dark space,” she warns.

"Throughout the play, playwright Anne Washburn is celebrating the best of theatre and theatre tradition.”


Even so, Henshall admits that Mr Burns is a play hard to define.

And Henshall has been in a lot of complex and cutting edge theatre.


As an associate artist with Windmill Theatre, she’s been outstanding through the bright years of Rosemary Myers creations, brave works such as Girl Asleep and as an associate artist with the ground-breaking Border Project she has worked in Trouble on Planet Earth, I Am Not An Animal and Escape from Peligro Island.  She has worked with State Theatre and Bell Shakespeare. She has been in films and television shows. She has even directed a Fringe Parade. She has won an Adelaide Critics Circle award and been nominated for a Helpmann. And, she has her own company, IsThisYours, which is priming up for a production of what Henshall hopes will be “the Australian War and Peace, a production Angelique to be performed in Her Majesty’s Theatre come September/October.

She’s thrilled that it received funding from ArtsSA.

“It’s going to be huge - and hugely important for my company,” she enthuses.


Meanwhile, there is the pleasure of playing in this State Theatre of SA/Belvoir of Sydney co-production.

“South Australia will see new faces and Sydney will see new faces,” she says of the cast.

Directed by Imara Savage, the cast includes Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford, Paula Arunsdwell, Brent Hill and the inimitable Jacqy Phillips.


Henshell says the director Savage has in her way “reinvented” the American play.

“Audiences can expect a gripping narrative, a hugely entertaining production with dancing and swing and exquisite costumes.”

The Simpson characters may have mutated a bit with time. Mr Burns is emblematic to the play and he has replaced Sideshow Bob who is the villain of the real Cape Feare story.


Do the costumed Mr Burns characters look like the Simpsons?

Henshell pauses. “Let the audience decide that,” she says mysteriously.


The play looks towards myriad contemporary popular cultural references.  Not just the Simpsons. Henshell thinks there is something in there for everyone. It is not necessary to be a Simpson’s aficionado. 


She sees the playwright as having an uncanny understanding of our deepest fears and of how we make highly consequential decisions we often take lightly.

“The Simpsons are a hook for younger people but I would be comfortable taking anyone from Year 7 onwards to this show, including Mum and Dad in their 70s,” she says

“I look forward to talking to people in the foyer."


Samela Harris


When: 22 Apr to 13 May

Where: Space Theatre


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