Michael Kantor, Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre, has collaborated with writer and Associate Director of Sydney Theatre Company Tom Wright to come up with a new stage adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide: Or Optimism. The world premiere is playing at the Malthouse and the production is bound for the Edinburgh Festival in August and for the Sydney Festival in January 2010.
All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This philosophy, propounded by Leibniz in the age of Enlightenment, came under attack from Voltaire in this 1759 philosophical tale. The novella, first published in secret, then banned, before finally being acclaimed as a classic, tears apart the optimistic outlook of the time and, with a light and satiric touch, exposes the darker side of nature and man. Kantor and Wright’s version uses much of the original material and adds plane travel and stand-up comedy into the mix.
In true Kantor style, Optimism challenges the mind, assaults the senses and tickles the funny bone. This take on the French story captures the spirit of Voltaire’s original – satirical, absurd, confronting and topical - and its touch is equally light. Wright has condensed the thirty chapters of the novella into nineteen scenes that depict the journey made by Candide (Frank Woodley), a naïve young man whose optimistic outlook is threatened by war, natural disasters, disease and human cruelty. In spite of the mounting evidence, he is convinced that there are still happy people to be found.
Don’t let the tinsel curtain deceive you. There are appalling realities to face when the curtain is pulled aside. Mayhem and chaos, murder and mutilation take turns with slapstick, buffoonery and Broadway musical. Glitter and gauze give way to plastic and steel, as scenes change from comedy to violence. Candide’s journey is made by plane, a recurring visual motif that represents a kind of freedom, but at a price. An illuminated sign, similar to that in an airport, provides captions for the graphic drama onstage.
Optimism sits somewhere between a horror movie and musical farce. Musical director Iain Grandage has mined pop music’s repertoire for the most optimistic of songs: Things Can Only Get Better, Beautiful World and I Could Be Happy. Most memorable were Shiny Shiny, executed in typical Woodley style by Candide and his companion Cacambo (Francis Greenslade), and She Taught Me To Yodel, a bizarre audience participation number by Barry Otto. These ridiculous numbers are offset by the superb Wonderful Life (led by Amber McMahon) and an ethereal Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.
In the opening scenes we are whisked away from the Baron’s court in Westphalia, the idyllic home of Candide’s beloved Cunegonde (Caroline Craig), when a fluttering handkerchief (a magical theatrical moment) signals Candide’s banishment. He is about to find out what the real world is like and we are bombarded with noise, smoke, an airplane disaster that horrifies with its slow motion realism and speeches that relate a litany of horrible deeds – particularly all those that can be done to women. Alison Whyte delivers these speeches with a matter-of-factness that is shocking, verging as it is on the comedic. This is not escapist theatre. Discomfort is the name of the game, but no one leaves the theatre.
Candide was written in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, where a tsunami and fires added to the huge death toll, and popular belief in ‘the best possible world’ was shaken. It is a classic text that translates well into our own age, where the power of positive thinking is being undermined by bushfires, floods and predictions of environmental meltdown. Swine flu made its way into Woodley’s extempore moments of stand-up comedy. Woodley is a natural choice for the clownish naïve Candide, and using his stand-up comedy within a scripted play a bold move, but why did someone decide to mask his usually mobile features with white makeup and immobilise one of his arms in a sling, inhibiting his typically animated movements? As a follower of the incorrigible optimist Pangloss (Otto), he could have been given the freedom to show a similar exuberance and physical agility.
Otto is a joy to watch in his many roles, particularly as Candide’s mentor Pangloss. He seems to levitate from the stage in his own bubble of optimism, his voice ranging the octaves as he raves about the best of all possible worlds, even as that world collapses around him. The nine cast members, apart from Woodley, play multiple roles, giving plenty of scope for comedy in the cross-dressing and unlikely characterisation. Queen Elizabeth I rubs shoulders with air hostesses, a Buddhist monk, rap dancing apes, a dismembered slave and a whirling dervish (Hamish Michael).
The second act slows down and is played out mainly in the first class cabin of a plane, where Candide is convinced he has finally found happy people. He and his new-found friend Martin (David Woods) are in heated debate while the air hostesses sing their moving three-part version of Wonderful Life and the mood turns to poignancy, ready for the denouement.
Optimism is theatre that is confronting, funny and horrifying. There is nothing obscure in it, but it is not easy entertainment. Yet, like Voltaire’s original text, it is not pessimistic. Just realistic.
A Malthouse Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival, Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Festival Production
by Tom Wright
Director Michael Kantor
Venue: Merlyn Theatre, The CUB Malthouse | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank VIC 3006
Dates: 22 May to 13 June 2009
Times: Wed – Sat 8pm; Sun 5pm; Tues 6.30pm; matinees Sat 6 June at 2pm, Thu 11June at 1pm.
Duration: 2 hour, 15 mins, including interval
Tickets: $15 - $40
Bookings: Malthouse Box Office 9685 5111 | www.malthousetheatre.com.au