Optimism (2 stars)

This article is from 2009


Jeff Busby

While still at an impressionable age, Candide comes under the influence of a forceful teacher with an inclination to the philosophical, and meanders out into life convinced that ‘Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’. Whatever ills befall him and his friends, our young hero cheerfully recites his catch-all creed and batters on undaunted. But the world contains ills uncounted – death, poverty, syphilis, an old lady with only one buttock, rape in all its most creative incarnations – and eventually his tutor’s mantra starts to seem less watertight than it once had, way back when in the rosy-tinted castle gardens of Westphalia. Optimism, Candide discovers, is overrated.

Voltaire’s Candide can’t be an easy tale to bring to the stage. It’s essentially a long shaggy dog story, and each of its many characters has a shaggy dog story of his or her own to add to the narrative. But for all that it jogs along haphazardly from one episode to the next, the novel never lacks pace or clarity.

The same cannot be said of Tom Wright’s reworking. His Optimism has none of Voltaire’s continuity, and it is a formidable challenge to follow the endless succession of events which leads this Candide from Westphalia to his final farmyard stopping point. Important episodes (like Candide’s escapades in the ideal kingdom of El Dorado) are glossed over, but then referred back to as though they were landmarks of the story, and the modern additions to the text (the most obvious example is a digression on global warming) come across as superfluous and intrusive in a play that hasn’t even got its basic plot in order.

But director and cast must also take responsibility for the flaws of this production, and once again clarity was much at issue. There was little framing of scenes or dialogue. Characters were inadequately introduced, and the identities of many major speaking parts remained indeterminate to the end.

But more than this. The acting was lazy and unprofessional. Dance routines were clumsy. Rehearsals had clearly been minimal. The difficulty of working out what was happening at any given time seemed largely due to the fact that the actors didn’t know or didn’t care. Candide’s tutor Dr Pangloss was already stumbling over his words in the opening speech. These were workmen failing to do what they are (highly) paid for.

Frank Woodley, who was playing Candide, is better known as a comedian than as an actor, and the play was dotted with ad libs and even repeated repartee with a chap in the front row. But Woodley was flinging aside the fourth wall before the audience had got the drift of the play, and the consequences for his poor character were dire. The tale of Candide has huge comic potential, but we were given no reasonable incentive to laugh at either philosophy or storyline, and most of the lines which ought to have raised laughs were lost because there had been no groundwork for anything but the cheapest of throwaway jokes. The biggest laugh in the whole piece (and it wasn’t anything to write home about) was when someone mispronounced vagina. At one point Woodley made a joke about Swine flu. Audience response was lukewarm. ‘You’ve gotta laugh’, he said, ‘You’ve gotta laugh. Or at least, you don’t have to laugh but I’d appreciate it if you did a little bit more.’

It seems deeply unfair that, in contrast to all this timewasting, the set was fantastic. It was entirely in the spirit of the production that this should have been: a stainless steel spectacular, space station cum industrial kitchen appliance, with smoke, glitter, whirring fans, giant inflatable bubbles, see-through umbrellas, every toy you could ask for. Infuriating that so complex a theatrical playground had been constructed for the sake of a troupe of idlers who could do little more than gawp at it.

The Edinburgh International Festival Programme promised ‘a cutting commentary on the no-worries bravura of the Australian swagger’. These players would be better off spending less time swaggering and more tending to their garden.

Royal Lyceum Theatre, until 17 Aug, 8pm, £10-25.

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