“Candide” by Mark Ravenhill

inspired by Voltaire

at the Swan Theatre, Thursday 5th September 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

There are two definitions of “optimism” in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first is the one we immediately think of, meaning “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something”. But it is the second definition that Mark Ravenhill’s Candide – inspired by Voltaire’s 1759 satire of the same name – attempts to question, offering an interrogation of “the doctrine, especially as set forth by Leibniz, that this world is the best of all possible worlds”. And though these two meanings sound similar, there’s a subtle difference in tense. Ravenhill’s target is that sickly-sweet, self-perpetuating belief that we are living in “the best of all possible worlds”. It’s at once savage, despairing and difficult, but in Lyndsey Turner’s production it is certainly never dull.

True to the original, Ravenhill’s play opts for a picaresque structure, though he kicks off with a seemingly traditional opening as we watch Candide presented with a theatrical rendition of his life story. Already, though, a postmodern self-reflexiveness is present, as the eponymous hero confuses the real with the theatrical. Just as this narrative is finding its stride, Ravenhill pulls the carpet out from under our feet and takes us to a darker modern setting, where an eighteen year-old Sophie berates her family before allowing them to meet horrible endings. Then with another change of style her mother Sarah becomes a modern-day counterpart to Candide, using his story as her guide whilst making a film. We shift again, this time witnessing Candide struggling to come to terms with the happy-go-lucky people of El Dorado. And then, finally, we’re in the future, this time the source of optimism being neither God nor self-help manuals but a newly-discovered “optimism gene”, the various narratives crashing into one another as we’re left struggling to decide where we stand.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the second scene resonates most with me, its youthful anger and extreme action best articulating what I sense to be Ravenhill’s argument. Sarah Ridgeway’s Sophie screams at her parents: “You were given the planet/ And you were supposed to leave it/ In a better state./ But what have you done?/ You’ve asset stripped our existence.” How, she asks, are we supposed to believe that this morally-vacant, disgustingly selfish society is “the best of all possible worlds”? On the other hand, the argument Candide gives against the banality of existence in El Dorado is that “a drive for profit” is what makes us human; this is where it all started.

Ravenhill’s Candide is a theatricalised five-part essay on optimism, taking in a plethora of styles and tones in order that its questions may reach far and wide. Is it right to be optimistic? Can optimism itself be a form of dictatorship? Do we need growth and progress? Does suffering make us happy in the long run? What is a happy ending?

And what’s extraordinary is he manages to fit all this into 110 minutes, Turner’s directorial flair hurling us out of one scene and into another without apology and Soutra Gilmour’s design never failing to surprise (completing a trilogy of brilliantly-designed plays in the Swan this season). Similarly, Tim Lutkin’s lighting and Michael Bruce’s music both follow the contours of this complex text, adding to the magpie-like feeling of the production.

The ensemble cast take on different styles with aplomb, moving from eighteenth-century players to twenty-first century film-makers effortlessly. Katy Stephens undergoes an extraordinary transformation from pre-shooting Sarah to post-shooting Sarah, voicing our own internal arguments about optimism without ever making it sound expository, whilst Steffan Rhodri is a joyful wide-eyed Cacombo. Throughout, Kevin Harvey interjects with gravity as Voltaire and Matthew Needham’s Candide remains perpetually naive as we can see his optimism leading further to darkness.

Though optimism (defined by Leibniz) may seem a good idea, Candide shows that it can be truly dangerous, allowing us to shift blame and underplay issues whilst blinding us to the idea of an alternative. We cannot just sit back and let the world wash over us, suggests Ravenhill. There is no such thing as a “best of all possible worlds”, but surely we can do better than where we find ourselves now. And within that idea lies the show’s mind-boggling paradox, those two meanings of the word “optimism” colliding into one another with such force that it leaves you reeling.

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