The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th September, 2013
Voltaire’s most celebrated work is the springboard for this new play by the RSC’s resident playwright, Mark Ravenhill. I’m pleased to say you don’t need in-depth knowledge of the original in order to get a lot out of this intriguing and thought-provoking piece.
It begins on expected ground, in the 18th century, but already there’s a twist. Candide (an appealing Matthew Needham) is being shown a dramatisation of his life, enacted on a scaled-up version of a toy theatre. It takes him a while to cotton on that the people in front of him are not those he knows but actors representing characters. It’s a framing device similar to that in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle – in fact this production has Brecht’s handiwork sharing the driving seat with Voltaire. The highly mannered performance style of the ‘actors’, a blend of 18th century posturing and ‘gestus’, the under-projected singing, drawing attention to the message rather than eliciting admiration for the voices – Ravenhill gives us a potted Voltaire before setting out his stall with his own flights of fancy.
There are abrupt changes of gear between sequences. Suddenly we are witnessing a birthday party at which everything is black. A massacre ensues, with some stylised bloodshed and more than a hint of Tarantino. This event triggers other sequences: the survivor (an excellent, powerful Katy Stevens) goes on to write a book, and then the screenplay for a film of the events, fuelled by the philosophising contained within Candide.
In-between these scenes, we cut back to Candide as he travels in search of his lost love Cunegonde, including a visit to the almost idyllic land of Eldorado. It’s a real challenge to Candide’s world view, but ultimately greed and capitalistic exploitation rear their ugly heads.
Ravenhill extends the satire of Voltaire into our age and beyond. There is a science fiction twist at the end, when Candide’s inexplicably long-lived mentor Pangloss is now seeking to medicate the entire population, isolate the ‘optimism gene’ so that mankind can forever more be happy – or rather his definition of happy. It’s an amusing and effective idea in a play that is crammed with ideas, and riffs on ideas. It’s a lot to take in and some scenes are better at getting their point across than others. Ultimately, the play never falls short of interesting, played out by an excellent company and presented in some inventive ways by director Lyndsey Turner.
Special mention for the wonderful Ishia Bennison in a range of roles, and prologue Harry McEntire, whose voice I could listen to all night. Sarah Ridgeway’s birthday girl Sophie is pretty powerful, Ian Redmond’s Pangloss is as avuncular as he is driven, and John Hopkins is in hilarious form as monstrous movie producer ‘Tim’.
It’s only when you’ve seen the whole that you appreciate the parts of this chimera. Pangloss’s optimism is still with us, in one form or another, and there is as much to criticise and satirise in the world as ever there was. Everything is not for the best. This is not the best of all possible worlds.