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.
Matthew Needham speaks Candide-ly (sorry)
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Leave a comment | tags: Candide, Harry McEntire, Ian Redmond, Ishia Bennison, John Hopkins, Katy Stevens, Lyndsey Turner, Mark Ravenhill, Matthew Needham, Pangloss, review, RSC, Sarah Ridgeway, Stratford upon Avon, The Swan, Voltaire | posted in Theatre Review
A MAD WORLD MY MASTERS
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 20th June, 2013
My first impression of this doctored version of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean comedy, here updated to Soho in the 1950s, was that it is very similar to West End hit, One Man Two Guvnors, in terms of period and knockabout feel. I suppose what it really demonstrates is the unchanging nature of comic archetypes.
The language has been not-so-much updated as interfered with (in a knowing, oo-er Mrs kind of way) with modern-day interjections thrust into the play’s convoluted passages. Almost every line is a sexual metaphor of some kind. I didn’t know where to put myself.The cast handle whatever comes their way with relish.
It’s at first a celebration of human flaws and foibles, as certain characters set out to take advantage of others in a variety of means. Dick Follywit (Richard Goulding) can’t wait to inherit his uncle’s fortune and so he sets out to rob the old man by dint of disguise and confidence trickery. Goulding has something of a dynamic David Cameron about him (if you can imagine such a creature) – but don’t let that put you off. As his schemes unfold, it is with the old uncle that our sympathies lie. Ian Redford is marvellous as Sir Bounteous Peersucker, the victim of Follywit’s cons; he has peccadillos of his own, which make him ripe for exploiting. Scheming prostitute Truly Kidman (a superb Sarah Ridgeway) outdoes Follywit in the effectiveness of her deception. She dresses as a nun in order to facilitate a sequestered wife’s liaisons with her lover. That the wife is married to a Mr Littledick tells you all you need to know. Her lover is one Penitent Brothel, a name that conjures up the duality of the character. Played by the excellent John Hopkins, Brothel, having got what he wanted, repents of his lust and turns to self-flagellation instead, swapping one physical sensation for another.
There is much to admire in this strong company. Ishia Bennison delights as Truly Kidman’s mother and pimp; Richard Durden is a scream as “Spunky” the doddering old retainer whose hearing aids scream to herald his exits and entrances; Steffan Rhodri and Ellie Beaver as the Littledicks handle their broad comedy with aplomb, but my heart goes out to the hapless Constable (Dwane Walcott) perhaps the only innocent in the whole piece.
The production is riddled with contemporary music, some tunes more familiar than others. The cast have a go (Mrs Littledick’s Cry Me A River is poignant and apposite, Follywit’s number is less palatable – imagine the Bullingdon Boys doing Elvis) but most of the vocal stylings come from the sultry and soulful Linda John-Pierre. I could happily have listened to her all night.
Director Sean Foley masters his mad world with total assurance. The tampering with the text makes Middleton more accessible, demonstrating there is life in the old plots yet. The play is still about what it was always about: the eternal folly of man. The moral seems to be we should enjoy others being made fools of while we can – we never know when it’s our turn.
In the last act, there is a play-within-a-play (a ruse to mask a robbery) and Sir Bounteous remarks that the ‘actors’ “have made faces at us, laughing at ourselves.”
There’s a double meaning in that.
Penitent Brothel (John Hopkins) enjoys a Littledick (Ellie Beaver)
1 Comment | tags: A Mad World My Masters, Dwane Walcott, Ian Redford, Ishia Bennison, John Hopkins, Linda John-Pierre, review. Ellie Beaver, Richard Durden, RSC, Sarah Ridgeway, Sean Foley, Steffan Rhodri, Stratford upon Avon, The Swan, Thomas Middleton | posted in Theatre Review