Optimism: Malthouse Theatre

There is much to admire about the work Candide before even looking at the Malthouse’s current production Optimism.
Optimism: Malthouse Theatre
There is much to admire about the work Candide before even looking at the Malthouse’s current production Optimism. Candide has been called Voltaire’s Magnus Opum, one which the man himself – a renowned Enlightenment Philosopher, was originally said to have never admitted to writing. Some critics have called Candide “a relentless, brutal assault on government, society, religion, education, and, above all, optimism.” This philosophical theory of optimism as proclaimed by German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, was actually fashionably followed by thinkers of the time. Leibniz is said to have argued that the “universe is, in a restricted sense, the best possible one God could have made.” This French satire about a young man – Candide, who together with his mentor Pangloss and young love interest Cunegonde, approaches life’s experiences with great optimism ("all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds".) is a bleak tale indeed. We follow Candide through such indescribable hardship, to the point where one might conclude that only a foolish man could possibly remain optimistic in their wake. The work is famous for its biting sarcasm, its absurdist narrative and the relentless manner it parodies the human condition – the adventures, the romance, and even the suffering. The matter-of-fact text, the stoic characterisation and general absurdity of the story, were all brought together by Voltaire to most intentionally create something scandalous in 18th century France. The novel was not surprisingly seen as brilliant and hilarious by some and blasphemous by others, and of course it was banned for not only its irreverent content but also the “political sedition and intellectual hostility hidden under a thin veil of naïveté.” Voltaire’s own philosophy was said to be based on a more common sense approach with heady doses of skepticism and rationalism. Now to the Malthouse’s production, written by Tom Wright (After Voltaire), directed by Michael Kantor, with a fantastic set by Anna Tregloan and Frank Woodley in the role of Candide, Barry Otto as Pangloss and Alison Whyte as the Baroness (to name only two of the characters Otto and Whyte play). There is a decidedly “busy-busy” aspect to this production that could possibly overwhelm an audience, with a lot of everything happening here, from stand-up comedy, singing, dancing, a seemingly endless supply of characters, some interesting social deconstruction and some great scene shifting sets. It is noticeably self referential and works hard to make the point or tell the joke, whilst simultaneously getting the audience both in on the joke and applauding the fact that the production knows it is being satirical (wink wink). Some scenes fail to hit the mark for me. When one of Alison Whyte’s characters talks in purposefully matter-of-fact detail about the horrors she has experienced from rape to physical abuse, or when Amber McMahon’s El Doradan endlessly heaves in despair banging her body on the airline seat where she sits, as Woodley’s Candide looks on and waits for that moment to say a throwaway line that goes something like “…a bit upset are we?...” Both create a sense of manipulation. I realise ridicule is a great tool to heighten the sense of despair, but I would have preferred to reach this endpoint without such hand holding techniques. Highlights for me however were when Caroline Craig, Amber McMahon and Hamish Michael sing Wonderful Life, and when an audience member is cajoled to sing along to She Taught Me to Yodel to the delight of the performers on stage. Both scenes were strong, measured and engaging. At that moment I think I had a glimpse of what the Malthouse team had been working towards. OPTIMISM BY TOM WRIGHT AFTER VOLTAIRE DIRECTOR MICHAEL KANTOR SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER ANNA TREGLOAN COMPOSER IAIN GRANDAGE LIGHTING DESIGNER PAUL JACKSON SOUND DESIGNER RUSSELL GOLDSMITH CHOREOGRAPHER LUKE GEORGE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR SARAH GILES CAST CAROLINE CRAIG FRANCIS GREENSLADE AMBER MCMAHON HAMISH MICHAEL BARRY OTTO ALISON WHYTE FRANK WOODLEY DAVID WOODS WITH MUSIC PERFORMED LIVE BY IAIN GRANDAGE MAY 22 - JUNE 13 MERLYN THEATRE AT THE C.U.B. MALTHOUSE AUGUST 15 - AUGUST 17 ROYAL LYCEUM THEATRE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL JANUARY 8 - FEBRUARY 20 DRAMA THEATRE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE SYDNEY FESTIVAL

Rita Dimasi

Thursday 28 May, 2009

About the author

Rita Dimasi is an Arts Hub reviewer.