Optimism - Things can only get better

  • The List
  • 8 August 2009

This article is from 2009

Optimism - Things can only get better

Frank Woodley tells Mark Fisher why Optimism is the feelgood hit of the summer

Frank Woodley tells Mark Fisher why Optimism is the feelgood hit of the summer

This time last year Frank Woodley was mucking in with the Fringe’s finest as he brought his solo show Possessed to the Assembly Rooms. It was much the same as it had been for the best part of 20 years for the rubber-limbed Australian comic, a Fringe veteran, who romped home with the Perrier Award as one half of Lano and Woodley in 1994. This year, however, Woodley is in altogether more august company as he arrives with Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre for a run in the Edinburgh International Festival.

‘I’m intending to go up and hand out leaflets anyway – just for old time’s sake,’ says Woodley. ‘I’m expecting I’ll be met at the airport by trumpets and people throwing rose petals in front of my feet as I walk off the plane. That’s the sort of thing when you’re in the main Festival, isn’t it?’

In a stroke of inspired casting, Woodley is taking the lead role in Optimism, an adaptation of Voltaire’s satirical 18th century novel Candide. It’s the story of a young man brought up to believe that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’, a philosophy that sustains him through the most horrific torments and still manages to come out smiling. He is, in short, an incurable optimist, well at home in the ‘no-worries’ Ozzie culture in which Tom Wright’s modern-day retelling is set, with oblique references to the credit bubble and global warming thrown in for good measure.

With a prestigious cast that includes David Woods of the brilliant British company Ridiculusmus, the show may be in the EIF programme but it is driven by the kind of raucous energy more commonly associated with the Fringe. ‘I always think of the Fringe as being exuberant and if they’ve got an idea, running with it,’ says Woodley, who technically celebrated his tenth birthday this year, having been born on a leap day, 29 February, 1968. ‘This has got that spirit. It’s quite a hybrid with lots of different styles within it. There’s beautiful moving music, then a bit of stand-up, some clowning, then some philosophy, followed by some grand theatrical spectacle. So, yes, it has that experimental Fringe quality.’

Whether as part of a double-act or in his subsequent solo career, Woodley has proved adept at making an audience love him. With echoes of silent comedy greats, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, he brings to his comedy a wide-eyed sense of fallibility that makes us feel for him all the more when his world falls in around him, as in the hilarious routine where he attempts to play a guitar belonging to his recently deceased grandfather only to end up smashing the instrument in two. It was surely this gift for being the innocent child at the centre of a chaotic universe that prompted director Michael Kantor to give him the lead role.

The challenge for Woodley, however, was to be prepared sometimes to lose the audience’s sympathy. ‘If you can let the audience feel that sense of innocence and wonder then you can venture into darker territory,’ he says. ‘But at the start of the play when I’m presenting this innocent, if I go too far the audience will decide it’s too wet, but I have to have the confidence to play with the saccharine quality because there is a pay-off coming when it gets darker. My career has been very much about winning the affection of the audience and being loved, so it’s interesting to be in a play where I’m serving the director’s vision and it’s not all about me.’

In this staging, the idyllic 18th century mansion in Westphalia in which Candide is brought up has been re-imagined as the home of a group of clowns in ludicrously colourful garb, inhabiting a landscape so sickly sweet that things can only go downhill. Once Candide is hounded out for getting too friendly with the teenage Cunégonde, the baron’s daughter, he sets out on a journey on which he is variously a witness, participant or victim of rape, robbery, murder, torture and slavery. The more Candide blindly accepts such suffering, the more Voltaire pours down further indignities. A leading figure in the Enlightenment, the author regarded the optimistic worldview as a negligent denial of the very real suffering in the world. For a comedy, it is one of classic literature’s most savage works.

‘When I read the novel I was amazed at how black the comedy was,’ says Woodley. ‘It’s very edgy. I had it in my head that in the past comedians had to play it a lot safer, that people were a lot more delicate in their tastes and that these days we’re much more cutting edge. But actually, the material Voltaire’s using for comedy is extraordinarily dark. Without being insensitive to the suffering involved, he’s getting comedy out of murder and rape and the most horrific things that a person could possibly experience. Both in terms of the central question – “Is it logical to be optimistic in the face of the suffering that we’re all going to endure through our lives?” – and in terms of the comic tone of the book, it’s as relevant today as it ever was.’

The combination of the comic and the outrageous allows the production to play with the audience’s emotions, swinging us from laughter to shock in a way that makes the serious themes of the story all the more intense. ‘It’s been great for me to be stretched into those areas,’ he says.

But once the curtain comes down, how tempted will Woodley be to slip out of the Royal Lyceum and rejoin his old pals on the stages of the Fringe? ‘I’m going to improvise that depending on how much doing the show takes it out of me,’ he says. ‘Rather than performing, I’ll probably get out and see some stuff to unwind. But you never know. When an opportunity arises and that little bug bites, you go, “Oh, actually …”’
Surely the talk of an optimist.

Optimism, Royal Lyceum, 473 2000, 15–17 Aug, 8pm (Sun mat 2.30pm), £10-£25.

The Ages of Optimism and Pessimism: Utopian and Dystopian Ideas

A discussion between Maggie Gee, novelist, Knud Haakonssen, Professor of Intellectual History, University of Sussex, Michael Kantor, Artistic Director, Malthouse Melbourne and Tom Wright, playwright of the Malthouse Melbourne production Optimism. Sponsored by Nature. Supported by Wellcome Trust.

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