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Theatre: Candid home truths

Gordon Parsons is convinced by an updating of Voltaire’s classic

The Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

“Shit happens. We get over it.”

This modern gloss of “the Candide principle” that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds may not ring with the same satiric force of Voltaire’s original statement. But Mark Ravenhill’s adaptation of his 1759 parable, taking its hero through all manner of personal and public catastrophes while still clinging to his mentor Pangloss’s philosophy of absolute optimism, brings the message up to date with a vengeance.

We move backwards and forwards from the 18th century to our own world where we are presented with optimism fuelled by greed as the prevailing “disease,” blanking out our awareness of suffering as a central ingredient of life.

Heavy stuff? Not at all. Ravenhill is true to the comic spirit of the original but has replaced Voltaire’s satiric underpinning with darker colours.

Episodes from Voltaire’s classic, tracking the protagonist gaily through the bruising worlds of warfare and business as he seeks his lost love Cunegonde, are presented as a play within a play with Matthew Needham’s naive Candide watching his own story on a life-size children’s stage straight from Pollock’s theatre shop.

These are mirrored by realistic contemporary scenes with an 18-year-old in despair at the narcissistic selfishness of her family — “you’ve asset-stripped our existence,” she declares as she shoots them before turning the gun on herself — and a film studio with typical media freaks intent upon turning the tragedy into their version of the “truth.”

This allows Ravenhill some telling shots at the current merging of fact and fiction distorting our awareness and response to reality.

The satire is punctuated by merry ditties and there is plenty of fun to be had, as when Candide literally flies from the paradise world of Eldorado on the back of a farting sheep.

Director Lindsey Turner brings coherence and flexibility to this complex modern take on Voltaire’s simple message. Ravenhill strikes at many targets but mainly addresses the tension between individual independence and social responsibility. Our threatened world will not allow Voltaire’s choice to retire into cultivating our own garden. Here and now we cannot theatre a happy ending.

Runs in repertoire until October 26. Box office: 0844 800-1114.


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