19 August, 2009

Festival Blogger review - Optimism

Image: Optimism. Photo: Jeff Busby

For a classic satire written almost three centuries ago, the themes of Candide still relate well to our times. Optimism by Malthouse Melbourne brings the story, with ever present topics of war, murder, rape and slave labour, to a modern audience with the additions of themes including global warming and swine flu.

I knew the play was to be an unusual take on Candide but I didn’t expect a group of airhostesses and apes dancing at a party, with one of the apes DJing, whilst holding giant inflatable balls and surrounded by bubbles and glitter. Despite these moments of bizarre frivolity, many serious themes were covered including the essential good and evil, with the theoretical question posed "when we send a boat off to Egypt, do we ask if the rats are comfortable?" It was all approached in a way that made you feel like you were in an insane dream, perhaps referring to the insanity of life itself.

One analogy that stuck in my mind is when Candide says he thinks his life is like god making a finger painting at some sort of "cosmic crèche". Starting off with the grass, adding some sky and then a sun, then adding war, some tulips, some blackbirds… changing his mind and trying to rub things out until the whole painting became a mass of brown which even "god’s own mother wouldn’t stick to her fridge"!

The lead role of Candide is played brilliantly by Australian comedian/actor Frank Woodley, who moves easily between cheerful optimism, disappointment at the fate his life dictates and even moments of improvised stand-up comedy with (at first reluctant) audience participation. The clown outfit of Candide seemed to represent his optimistic, naïve outlook on life.

The rest of the cast were superb, switching easily between characters including airhostesses, an ironic take on a whirling dervish, a singing monk, priests and slaves.

The set was fascinating, using simple glittered, plastic and white curtains to completely change the atmosphere of the set. Fans were used to simulate plane travel and wind, and a shiny steel box forming a plane cabin. Like a morbid waiting room, a digital display at the top of the set let you know where the characters were at all times, from Venice to Surinam, from 'In transit' to 'Half way between heaven and hell'.

The show concluded with Candide announcing it was time to look after the garden, as in Voltaire’s original conclusion (‘Tendre votre jardin’). The message rang loud and clear - while we should consider wider global issues, ultimately our power for change lies in our own backyard. In a literal response to Candide's statement however, buckets of dirt were then emptied onto the stage by each cast member, finished off with a healthy showering from Candide's watering can.

Reviewer: Sarah Jackson

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