By Mark Ravenhill
Directed by Lyndsey Turner
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Friday 6th September 2013
Well that’s one and three-quarter hours of my life I’ll never get back again. As I was on the aisle for this one (left side) I did think of nipping out after the first scene (and then after the second, then during the third, the fourth and even the fifth) but I always have that nagging worry that the evening will suddenly take off and I’ll have missed the good bits. I needn’t have worried tonight; apart from some so-so laughs there was nothing to miss, and an hour or so in the bar waiting for Steve would have been much more entertaining.
I won’t waste even more of my life writing about this production in great detail, but a short summary would be helpful. Arranged in five scenes, the play skated so quickly through the story of Voltaire’s Candide that they might do better to give this version another title, even allowing for the fact that it was a ‘response’ play. The opening scene was set in a countess’ palace, where a lustful countess was hoping Candide could be revived from his apathy by seeing a play of his early life; i.e. the story so far. This scene also showed the first of Mark Ravenhill’s nods to the other plays in this season, with the countess being the first to speak (All’s Well). The expressive acting style and mini-stage should have been good fun, but a candle stand blocked my view for much of the scene, and even a cast as good as this one couldn’t raise much of a spark with such a bitty scene. The story was frequently interrupted by Candide’s inexperience with theatre, leading him to accost the actors as if they were his real friends. A neat bit if theatrical self-referencing perhaps, but not helpful in establishing what was going on.
The second scene dropped Candide altogether – a strange choice – to introduce Sarah (Katy Stephens), a mother who sees her entire family get shot by her daughter, who then commited suicide. Before the merciful release (I would have joined in myself if I’d had a gun to hand) we had to put up with a load of whiny brats whinging on about how everyone else was to blame for the world’s problems, etc. God, it was BORING!! The echo here was to have Katy sitting in the same seat at a similar table and in a similar dress as for the Titus feast, and while the killing was done in a different style, with red ribbons shooting out to indicate the blood, the overall effect was much the same as the final gorefest in Titus. This scene was done in modern dress and in a stark black setting with extremely negative attitudes, apparently in the style of Pedro Almodóvar. Nul points.
The following scene was done in several sections, showing an attempt to put Sarah’s experience into a film so that her story could help others. One by one Sarah shed the other characters who all claimed to be helping her; the echoes here were in the invented scripts which included a rewrite of the Hamlet death scene. There were some laughs, but nothing of interest.
By this time I was getting well fed up, but at least the next location, El Dorado, looked quite pretty. Small houses were placed round the stage with smoke coming out of their chimneys and there were little model sheep here and there, as well as a bigger one at the back. There were mountains of gold-coloured cloth behind all this and the natives were friendly. Their song of welcome was rather nice, and we’d been promised that the chap who sang the song had a lovely voice – he did. They even included a fart joke (Mad World) and after Candide left with the gold (yes, he was finally back in the play) one of the El Doradans seemed to have been infected with the negative impulses of the outside world. There may also have been an echo here with the hippy-like community in As You Like It, but I couldn’t be sure.
Now I knew we were close to the end, so I clenched everything I could and soldiered on. I didn’t even have the excuse of an uncomfortable seat to ameliorate my dislike of this play. The final scene did not improve my rating. Small glass cases were wheeled on to a futuristic set (All’s Well again) and Pangloss announced the discovery of the Optimism gene, together with his plan to have every newborn treated to activate this gene and rid the world of unhappiness. The images at the back, showing scowling faces turning into smiling ones were quite good, but not good enough to make up for the rest of the play.
Sarah turned up and offered a huge incentive to Pangloss for a meeting with Candide, apparently cryogenically frozen as a result of his trip over the mountains on the sheep (no one informed us of the sheep’s welfare – typical!). She wanted Candide to join her in attempting to stop this removal of people’s right to choose, blah, blah, blah. Somehow this morphed into Cunegonde’s arrival, in a rather tatty 17th century costume, and again my view was almost completely blocked for what was presumably meant to be an important moment. One other problem; Susan Engel was playing the aged Cunegonde, and since I couldn’t see how they’d made her up I had no idea what sort of woman Candide was rejecting with disgust. Having seen Susan Engel before, I knew she would have to be made ugly for this scene to be believable (not that anyone seemed concerned about that) and when I discovered she looked perfectly OK, my impulse, sadly stifled, was to shout out “Come on, Candide. Wayne Rooney would give her one”. Disgraceful behaviour I know, but you wouldn’t believe how many actors tell us they would love the audience to do something like that. Anyway the thought gave me a laugh, and sadly that was the best laugh of the evening for me.
From the talk earlier today, I realised that I’m not interested in Voltaire’s original because I’m already past the stage Candide reaches at the end of the book. Not that I’m an expert on philosophy, but I don’t see the point of many of the simplified versions of philosophical ideas which Voltaire and Mark Ravenhill are poking fun at. In effect they’ve both set up false targets to take aim at, and the inconsequentiality of this nonsense bores me rigid. The characters aren’t meant to be real, so there’s no chance of connecting emotionally with them, and the storyline bounced around all sorts of times and places, which is fine if there’s something to learn from that, but with no sight of an interesting or challenging idea it was just a waste of the budget. No disrespect to the actors, of course, who did a fine job with the dross available, and I’d be prepared to give the director another chance although she does need to learn how to stage a play in the Swan to avoid such obvious and avoidable blocking of sightlines. However, we have put Mark Ravenhill on a provisional ‘don’t watch’ list – one more strike and he’s out – and we’ll be taking the unprecedented step of returning our tickets for the post-show performance; life’s too short to waste it on another round of this.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me
I feel your pain, as they say. Did you two go to the Bernstein musical version at the NT (in your pre-blogging days)? I’ve just booked for another go when the show comes to the Menier. It’s not without its faults but the music carries it along for me. I’d really like to see the production at Nancy in France in which a pal is appearing as a pink sheep but can’t justify the train fare. All of FIVE EURO’s worth of a different piece (in Paris) with an irrelevant but highly spectacular guest appearance by King Kong will have to satisfy cravings for mad music theatre until the Candide preview in NOV.
Best Wishes Peter
The idea of your friend appearing as a pink sheep tickled me greatly; not the greatest part, perhaps, but what a thing to have on your CV!
Steve saw the National version, and we both saw the production at the Old Vic back in 1988 (the Miller era – generally a snoozefest, but they did manage a couple of good productions each season). You have now alerted us to the Menier’s production – many thanks – and another trip may well be on the cards.