Anyone who is familiar with Voltaire’s satirical classic Candide will recall the calamitous, if not frankly pernicious, series of trials and tribulations the eponymous hero undergoes as his faith in the principle of Optimism is tested. Everything from war and pillage to heartbreak and earthquake all arrive at the young protagonist’s feet, with the words of his tutor, Pangloss, ringing stoically in his perplexed ears: “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Candide remains a steadfast pupil, and takes his tutor’s logic in the design of the universe – for instance, that the human nose is so constructed for the carrying of spectacles – as clear evidence that the Creator has ordained a perfect order on the world. “Well, all must be for the best” he concludes patiently as yet another misfortune strikes.
The target of Voltaire’s satire was the contemporary Leibnizian philosophy of Optimism. Given God’s intrinsic benevolence, the thorny question of evil and suffering in the world is addressed by Optimism with the assertion that our own human perspective is too limited, that God’s moral weighing scales are too large, for us to comprehend: accept your lot and be glad about it, as there is a bigger picture of which you are not aware.
Mark Ravenhill’s new adaptation of Voltaire’s classic is superbly footloose with the original. At first we are presented with Candide in a state of enervation, apparently tired and withdrawn from his adventures. In order to rouse him from his melancholy his guardians decide to stage a play about Candide’s own life and to present it to him. This is the first of many ingenious devices that Ravenhill employs to stage what is, in its original form, a fantastical storyline of epic death and disaster. By reducing Voltaire’s text to an amateurish (and therefore very funny) play staged in Eighteenth century costume, the wild and absurdist tribulations of Candide’s life are managed succinctly and grippingly. Even Candide is enraptured; having never seen a play before he repeatedly confuses the actors for real people, and brawls with them on stage as they re-enact the atrocities he has already witnessed in real life. This first section concludes with Candide setting out to find his sweetheart Cunégonde, who though reportedly dead, remains the last vestige of hope for Candide’s schooling in positive thought.
The production next turns a sharp corner, landing in the present day and to a nightmarish family dinner party. Here the furniture, food and party-balloons are all staged in boutique-black, and the family, drunk and argumentative, take turns to address the birthday girl, Sophie, with empty birthday eulogies. It is the worst of modern day scenes: everyone is obnoxious and excessive. The birthday girl herself remains tight-lipped, but when her mother pleads for her to say something, chanting with excruciating venom the mantra “speech, speech, speech,” Sophie eventually cracks. And how spectacularly. Nothing short of a bloodbath follows, with Sophie wielding a pistol and unleashing all of her frustrations at the dismal selfishness of those gathered around the birthday table. The theme of her disgust centres on the bleak prospects for the human race, with environmental catastrophe on our doorstep and a world population growing at an alarming rate. Thus, the problem of evil returns as the core thread of Ravenhill’s play, rendered now not as a theological issue but as a drama of contemporary concerns: if humans are a superior species, how do we find our way out of this mess we have created?
By the end of the scene, only the mother is left alive. The play now spins into the setting of a film producer’s office. Here the mother is being persuaded into retelling her family tragedy for the moral benefit of cinema goers. These scenes, with a jet-lagged, weak-willed screenwriter, his aggressive film producer boss, and the mother’s overly protective therapist, are brimming with satire and biting one-liners, and make up some of the most entertaining scenes of the play. The arguments continue over how the story of Sophie’s killing spree can be told with a Hollywood-style redemptive conclusion. Thus in our media driven society, the problem of evil is restated as a question of how tragedy can be meaningfully represented as entertainment.
The remainder of the play seeks to draw the established plotlines together. We return to the fortunes of the Eighteenth century Candide, who arriving at a utopian society known as Eldorado, is astonished to learn that the whole population is kind and sharing and naive to such traumas as war and disaster. Even notions of commerce and profit are unknown. At Eldorado, where of course gold is to be found in abundance, nothing has any value above its practical use. Candide is incredulous when, holding up a meteor sized lump of gold and his own shoe, the people of Eldorado point to the shoe as the more valuable object. Candide returns home over the mountains, dissatisfied with the plain innocence of the Eldorado community.
The final scenes of the production take place in the future, some twenty years from the present day. By this time, the still living Pangloss has established his own genetics company whose aim is to engineer every new born child with an active ‘optimistic gene’. A cryogenically frozen Candide is awoken by Sophie’s mother and outraged at what he now sees as the deterministic views of his tutor. He is eventually reunited with his beloved Cunégonde, who having endured centuries of waiting for Candide’s kiss, has been ravaged by age and suffering. These concluding scenes, whilst somewhat confusing due to the converging of plotlines, make the point of the play explicit. At it’s heart is an attack on an uncritical faith in science and the assumption of perpetual human progress, and the blindness to real suffering this assumption brings. Hence, the problem of evil is finally brought inline with Voltaire’s treatment, with science taking the place of God as the trusted panacea to all of life’s ills. There is nothing new about such a position, but here Ravenhill has succeeded in brilliantly refreshing the argument. His reading of Voltaire is adept, intelligent and funny, and with combination of a committed and talented ensemble cast, strong staging and a gifted set of musicians, has resulted in a first rate production.