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September 10, 2013 6:00 pm
The programme credit is unambiguous: this is “a new play by Mark Ravenhill, inspired by Voltaire”, not an adaptation from Voltaire’s novel; if any doubt remained, Voltaire appears only in an inset of the centre spread’s graphic-novel-style illustration of Ravenhill at his laptop. The French Enlightenment philosophe has a walk-on part, though, offering occasional sidelights on the main action.
That action is fragmented, almost as if we were watching five only partially related playlets in the manner of Ravenhill’s Shoot – Get Treasure – Repeat series. After watching protagonist Candide, who has apparently been lost in despondency, himself watching a dramatisation of the early parts of his own narrative (with much sly meta-theatricality ensuing), we are jolted to a modern-day family party in which a young woman takes violent opposition to Candide’s optimistic view that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, and shoots her family before turning the gun on herself.
Cut again to the surviving mother from the previous scene (Katy Stephens) telling and re-telling differing versions of her story as a series of film scripts, evolving a bleaker form of optimism which suggests that enduring abominations is a good thing in itself in as much as we survive them. This view is summed up by a script doctor as “the Candide principle – shit happens; we get over it.” A fourth, more Voltairean act in which Candide discovers that the paradise of El Dorado is emotionally hollow (and, less Voltairily, escapes on a farting sheep carried aloft by toy balloons) is succeeded by a final futuristic scene where the still youthful, long-comatose Candide confronts his now-withered beloved Cunegonde, who has taken the long, eventful, horrific way round. So much for the promised happy ending.
Ravenhill enjoys jumping between idioms and also crashing them together; if Lyndsey Turner’s production has a flaw, it is that she is too skilled at smoothing these disjunctions. Matthew Needham is a suitably innocent Candide, with notable support in multiple roles from the likes of John Hopkins, Steffan Rhodri and Ishia Bennison. Purists will be dissatisfied, but this is no travesty of Voltaire’s original, more a remix of it: the themes and the hooks remain, but sometimes stripped down and sometimes with some extra programming on top.
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