How can we be optimistic, when faced with the world’s endless cruelties? How can we truly believe that all will be well? So goes the story of Candide, who ever sups from a cup half full, even though at times he has a niggling feeling it might be of poison. Based on the 1759 novella by French literary celebutante, Voltaire, this production is comprised of 19 short scenes and is fronted by local funnyman, Frank Woodley. After being caught beneath his beloved Cunegonde’s petticoats, Candide catapults from valued servant to wayward traveller in a war-torn Europe. Ever he clasps to his bosom the lessons of his mentor, Dr Pangloss (Barry Otto), a starry-eyed philosopher in the Leibnizian mould. Pangloss believes that as we live in the best of all possible worlds, evil cannot exist. Candide is increasingly not so sure. Wending his way through military coups, airplane crashes, rapings and hangings, from the depths of El Dorado to the accursed heights of Europe, he finds not only humanity but himself capable of murder and betrayal. It’s the old unavoidable equation: a butterfly flapping its wings over here (your contentment) creates a fallen tree over there (someone else’s calamity) – illustrated in one heartrending scene where a mutilated negro (Hamish Michael) brokenly and ironically croons, “I could be happy …” and Candide realises that without this slave’s toil and suffering, there would be no sweetened tea for his old rich family. Optimism is successfully surreal, and its themes, true to Voltaire, taste convincingly both sweet and sour. However, like some kind of antique kettle it bubbles and froths, but ultimately refuses to boil. Visually it is one part funfair, one part 70s airline porno, with liberal dashes of pop music and dancing sequences thrown in for good measure (witnessing Otto’s attempts to follow the choreography is gold.) It has a delightful slapdash energy that somehow feels like it might’ve been better suited to a grungey, independent stage – although it does ridicule its own positioning within snooty theatre confines. What rings true is Woodley’s portrayal of Candide. A comedian not actor by trade (this is his first foray) the role fits him like a five-fingered glove, and it seems no accident that his real name is Frank, so candid (ahem) is his rendering. You believe that Frank Woodley too bumbles through a world that makes no sense, a world of jokes, fame and expectations. But while mostly the other performances are strong, and the journey you are taken on is satirically stimulating, it somehow strays too far into a cardboardy caricature – and you are left feeling what Candide coins as, “Upsettled” rather than ‘uplifted’ or ‘intrigued’.
Until Feb 20, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, $30-85 sydneyfestival.org.au