Play on, MacHomer

By Kevin Cullen

© The Boston Globe, August 21, 2000, pA2.

Cartoon take on 'Macbeth' draws 'Dohs,' audiences

Rick Miller is, by his own admission, nuts.

Who in their right mind, after all, would adapt "MacBeth," one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, by casting Homer Simpson as the ambitious, tortured Scot?

That Miller's wildly imaginative one-man show "MacHomer" is one of the hits of this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival is testimony to the rarefled place that the dysfunctional American cartoon family the Simpsons occupies in British society.

Next month marks the 10th anniversary of the first episode of "The Simpsons" on British television, where it became an institution and one of the highest-rated programs for a decade. It is shown ever night on the Sky network owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox network gave birth to "The Simpsons" in the United States.

It proved so successful that even the BBC swallowed its distaste for anything remotely connected to Murdoch and bought the rights to run weekly repeats. The Friday night repeats have been the highest-rated program on one BBC channel for years, making "The Simpsons" the only show shown both on a commercial station and the publicly funded BBC.

In a society that remains stratified by class, the appeal of "The Simpsons" cuts across all boundaries. Stephen Hawking, the British scientist who wrote "A Brief History of Time," calls "The Simpsons" the cleverest show on American TV - before noting that there isn't much competition.

A few months ago, the Rev. Rowan Williams, the Anglican archbishop of Wales, told a gathering of bishops that he considers "The Simpsons" one of the most moral shows on the air.

"It is very moral because the good people always win in the end," he said. "It is a lighthearted look at life and is surreal, but there are good, strong Christian morals there, too."

Tom Jones, the Welsh crooner, says he was flattered to be a "guest" on one episode. His cartoon character serenades Homer and Homer's wife, Marge. A Scottish university offers a course called "Having the Donut and Eating It: Self-Reflexivity and 'The Simpsons.'"

Miller's stage show, which has drawn rave reviews, exploits the show's popularity in Britain. The play, which stays faithful to Shakespeare's plot but fills the roles with the entire cast of "The Simpsons," has been playing to sellout audiences for two weeks and has another week to go. Miller, a gifted mimic who premiered the show in his native Montreal and wants to bring it to the United States, including Boston, does the voices for about 80 characters in the show.

In "MacHomer," Miller has taken poetic license with some of Shakespeare's most memorable lines. At one point, as he is about to murder the king, Homer muses: "Is this a dagger I see before me or a pizza? Mmmmmm . . . pizza."

Barney [Gumble], the beef-swilling barfly at Moe's, takes the Macduff role to places Sir Laurences Olivier never did, belching all the way. Marge's skyscraper blue hair makes Lady Macbeth seem more sinister. Mr. Burns, the unctuous owner of the nuclear power plant where Homer works, plays King Duncan, which the audience loves because the king is murdered.

But after MacHomer stabs the king to death, he immediately realizes it will be his downfall, shouting, along with many in the audience, "Doh!"

Miller, 30, said he knew that revising a Shakespearean classic with "The Simpsons" cast would go over well in Britain. He believes he could "Simpsonize" any great tragedy: Homer as Willy Loman; Homer as King Lear; Homer as any male lead in any play by Eugene O'Neill.

"People here love the Simpsons because everyone in Britain loves to laugh at Americans," he said. "On another level, the Simpsons have mythic qualities, they're iconoclasts. The British are very self-deprecating, so they really get the irony and the humor. Australians are the same way.

"The Simpsons are popular all over the world, but it's the English-speaking countries where everyone gets all the jokes, all the nuances."

Indeed, Britons are alternately attracted to and repelled by American pop culture, which is so prevalent in British society, so their infatuation with America's most dysfunctional family, even if they're just cartoons, is not surprising.

As popular as Miller's play is, the arrival this week of Simpsons creator Matt Groening and most of those who provide the voices for the characters led to scenes of hysteria usually reserved for pop stars. It also caused a rush on tickets at the Fringe Festival, one of six art festivals that dominate the Scottish capital every August. Late in the week, the show moved to London, and more packed houses at the National Film Theatre.

James Christopher of The Times of London, like other high-brow British critics, has no problem voicing unreserved enthusiasm for "The Simpsons" TV show. He said the Simpsons became icons in Britain in 1992, when George Bush infamously urged Americans to be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.

"Sod the Waltons and their sterile virtues," said Christopher. "In Simpsons cartoons, life is not only unfair, it's a ghastly mistake."

Miller said British audiences are the most enthusiastic he has ever seen for "MacHomer." In fact, Miller says anyone who even has to ask why the Simpsons are so popular in Britain is a moron.

Hey, wait a minute. That means . . .


Transcribed by Eric Wirtanen

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