Above left: David Woods, Barry Otto & Frank Woodley.

Above right: David Woods, Frank Woodley, Barry Otto & Alison Whyte.

Below: Barry Otto.

Images credit: Jeff Busby.


Optimism, by Tom Wright (after Voltaire)

Malthouse Melbourne & Sydney Theatre Company | Sydney Opera House | Until 20 Feb

Don’t worry that not having read Voltaire’s Candide will interfere with your understanding or enjoyment of Optimism, Tom Wright’s distinctly surreal take on the 18th-century French classic.

Just get to the Opera House half an hour early and devour the lavish program, especially the essay by Nicholas Cronk, director of the Voltaire Foundation at Oxford. It may seem a little like cramming the Classic Comic — boomers will well remember those — of Tale of Two Cities the morning of an English literature exam, but in this case it will foreshadow an enormously pleasing and provocative experience.

Wright’s pen and some bravely creative direction from Michael Kantor have created a truly remarkable hundred minutes or so of theatre.

On the surface, Optimism is a funny ... very, very funny ... play that scours just about every corner of the humorist’s cabinet to deliver line after line, scene after scene that have the audience laughing quite loudly and unselfconsciously about quite appallingly horrific subjects. War, plane crashes, rape, blatant injustice and the cruelest oppression.

Voltaire’s storyline is simple. Candide (Frank Woodley) is cast from an idyllic existence in a large German household because of a particularly indiscreet liaison with its Baron’s daughter, Cunégonde (Caroline Craig). He embarks on a long journey through a much less idyllic world whose savagery challenges and eventually overwhelms the philosophy of Optimism learnt from his tutor Pangloss (Barry Otto).

Optimism, in this case, isn’t simply a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty matter, though there are some nice references to that concept, too. The Optimism that Voltaire was concerned about — and indeed used as Candide’s subtitle — was an idea proposed by German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in answer to the apparent conundrum of why a merciful and all-powerful God would allow such evil to exist in the world.

According to Leibniz, there was no evil and everything was actually right with the world. Humans just didn’t get the reality because they couldn’t see the full picture. How were they to know that a plague had prevented a war and was just part of God’s plan for a greater good?

It’s Voltaire’s revulsion with and satirisation of that sort of fanaticism that Tom Wright and Michael Kantor have tapped into and modernised in their much more risqué stageplay.

The choice of Woodley as Candide is inspired. He has an innocence and a naivety ideal for the role and, dressed continually in his Pierrot-style clown-suit, has the opportunity to interact, stand-up-comic style, with the audience as well as well as fulfill his more conventional stage role.

Apart from Woodley, and Alan John who occasionally ducks out from behind his piano as the Musician, all the actors play multiple roles, and do so with great aplomb.

I especially liked Alison Whyte in her Queen Elizabeth I role and Amanda Bishop as an otherwise efficient air hostess turning quite nasty in the first-class ‘front of bus’.

As well as being excellent as Pangloss, Barry Otto works very hard as an air hostess and makes a fine businessman.

Francis Greenslade shows a deft comic hand as the increasingly bored Lord Pococurante, and it was refreshing to be reacquainted with David Woods, the bare-skulled half of Ridiculusmus, whose performances I had so enjoyed at Belvoir Street last year.

Sitting up the front of the plane, philosophising with Candide, he again showed an innate ability to drolly deliver quite absurd propositions and make them sound quite normal and acceptable. He also revealed some quite remarkable flamenco skills as Governor Don Fernando de Ibaraa (etc, etc) proposing marriage to Cunégonde.

Hamish Michael showed great vocal and musical skills throughout — excellent as Cunégonde’s brother, even better as the Dervish and incredibly moving as the one-armed, one-legged slave singing Altered Image’s I Could Be Happy in the scene where Candide ultimately realises the folly of Optimism.

After all, says the slave, he’s only suffering the way he is so that Europeans can have cheap sugar on their tables. Yes, we’re living in the best of times and all is right with the world.

It’s nearly impossible to fault Optimism. Everything just comes together — script, direction, acting, and the choice and rendition of music — starting with Devo’s Beautiful World, working through Russell Morris’s The Real Thing, right through to the finale of Frank Ifield’s She Taught Me to Yodel, with Woodley encouraging audience participation.

And, almost of course, there was the sort of elaborate, ambitious and highly successful staging and costumes that STC is becoming increasingly renowned for.

Absolute accolades to Anna Tregloan (set and costume designer), Ian Grandage (composer and musical arrangements), Paul Jackson (lighting), Russell Goldsmith (sound), Luke Georhe (choreography) and Claire Bourke (stage manager) ... and, no doubt, many others.

Candide has provided a scintillating start to STC’s 2010 Main Stage Season, and it’s easy to see why its run was extended by a week almost immediately after opening night.

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