Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
A new play by Mark Ravenhill
Inspired by Voltaire
Mark Ravenhill’s Candide, is one of those rare pieces of theatre that not only sets out to challenge some widely held perceptions on life, but actually succeeds in its mission, via provocative stagecraft that is close to perfect.
Ravenhill's starting point is Voltaire’s hero Candide, an eternal optimist who believes that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Candide’s progress however sees him encounter a succession of grim realities that continually test his gloriously naïve and eternally hopeful presumptions, until the argument is ultimately proposed that optimism is simply people tricking themselves.
That’s it for the philosophical comment of this review and if you want to learn more, see the show! But if Voltaire provided the seed of Ravenhill’s journey, then the structure of his play is at times more of a nod to Doc Brown’s time machine from the movie Back To The Future rather than the classic French tale. The play opens in 18th century Westphalia where Candide, in a performance from Matthew Needham that just occasionally feels slightly forced, is expelled from his adoptive home after virtually seducing his young cousin Cunegonde. Conscripted into the army, battle follows and whilst at all times following Voltaire’s underlying themes, Ravenhill brutally lurches us into the present day and the birthday celebrations in a swanky hotel of an apparently catatonic Sophie. Awakened from her trance like state, Sophie in a performance of electrifying menace, massacres her family one by one, whilst bewailing her grief at the destruction that modern humankind is wreaking upon the planet. Candide’s arc broadly continues in modern times, amongst shocking, visceral theatre, beautifully envisioned by Lyndsey Turner that is as exhilarating as it is disturbing to watch. If Ravenhill’s mission has been not only to provoke and to stimulate his audience but also to entertain them, then he gloriously succeeds.
Stylish writing is matched here by sublime performances. Ian Redford (is this really his RSC debut season?) shines as Sophie’s Ray Winstone like grandfather, going on to threaten as an ultimately corrupt Pangloss. Sarah Ridgeway’s Sophie brings a chilling intensity rarely seen outside Tarantino movies, to leafy sleepy Stratford whilst Rose Reynolds, who like many of her peers has delivered consistent excellence throughout this season, is a delight as the wide-eyed coquettishly climactic Cunegonde. John Hopkins as cynical film director Tim again shows his versatility in a range of roles, whilst Kevin Harvey’s Voltaire is just a delight to listen to. Harvey's scouse diction, so perfectly clipped and matching his immaculate presence enhances all his scenes, whilst veteran Susan Engel’s final act is as shocking as it is enthralling. Soutra Gilmour’s designs that bridge continents as equally as they span the centuries keep up with the mania that appears to be Ravenhill’s powerfully creative mind.
This production is such a stunning confection of ideas and imagery that it deserves a wider audience. With apologies for yet another cinematic comparison, but the political and philosophical absurdity of Ravenhill's interpretation of Candide's journey suggested echoes of Lindsay Anderson's seminal movie, O Lucky Man! The RSC who well know how to exploit a successful production, should consider engaging a British filmmaker to translate Ravenhill’s visions on to the big screen. His ideas have a contemporary beauty that is rare, wonderful and refreshingly free of all pretension and his Candide is a story that must be seen.
Runs until 26th October 2013