‘Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’ is the essence of the philosophy of Dr Pangloss. A philosophy that Voltaire lampooned in his story Candide, by passing the titular hero through a series of hideous adventures, where despite all the suffering it is all for the best.
Candide was one of the first books I ever read. I was slow to reading and was 13 I think. Despite the archaic language it was short and didn’t hang about with the action, the two key requirements for me then. Its always had a place in my heart since.
When Voltaire wrote the book it was in reaction to the prevailing philosophy of his day having witnessed the death of many thousands following an earthquake. Mark Ravenhill picks up this thread in his adaption of the story. He equates the glib optimism of Pangloss with what he sees as a blind acceptance of the excesses of capitalism and the baseless presumptions of some new age thought. Not that this message is delivered as dry rhetoric. In this relentlessly funny, angry, provocative play one is both challenged and engaged in a thrilling way.
The play begins with Candide, in the clutches of a lascivious Countess watching a play based on his own life. This funny playful introduction had enough ideas bouncing around for most plays. But just as one is settling in for comfortable amusing theatre there is a shattering shift of pace. We shift, with a funky disco soundtrack to a girl’s 18th Birthday party where she unleashes her murderous despair in the human race on her family. Railing against capitalism, globalisation and most of all empty optimism she concludes self-destruction is our only positive step. After taking her own life only her mother remains.
The play then moves forward and back in time until as still youthful Candide is met by the lover he has always pursued Cunegonde. But now she is an ancient and battered woman desperate for his kiss. But s no longer the woman he loved, his reluctant compliance to provide a happy ending is underlined by a harsh but fitting finale.
The sets and the use of music powerfully underline the action on the stage. The cast are incredibly powerful and exuberant. Some of the more overtly political speeches risk being heavy handed, though one is not always sure if that is deliberate, as most of this play is so beautifully crafted.
Ultimately people will take from it what they will. What I appreciated was that was both funny and angry. But also brave enough to try and make a point. It rails against the shoulder shrugging that pervades much of the reaction to the recession we are in. The dismissing of any ideas or philosophies that believe they can improve on what we have got. Bad luck if your job and home is gone, it is necessary part of the process.
The artistic response to the recession so far has been pretty thin, it is good to see a play that is so much fun, has so many ideas, standing up and shaking its fist. Ravenhill may be wrong but at least his Candide is brave enough to put up a fucking fight.