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Theatre review: Candide, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


Voltaire's 1759 novella satirises the theological optimism of Leibniz as it is encapsulated and travestied in the deterministically upbeat mantra of the hero's tutor Dr Pangloss who cannot be budged from the belief that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”.  It's a creed that the ingenuous young Candide comes to view as a method of self-deceiving, heartless insulation from the wretchedness of existence in the course of a pithy, picaresque narrative that pullulates with natural calamities (including the 1755 Lisbon earthquake) and instances of human barbarism that richly refute this philosophical position. 

Directed with mordant verve by Lyndsey Turner, Mark Ravenhill's witty and astringent response to Candide shifts between the eighteenth century and scenes set in the present and near future and it suggests that optimism as a form of denial may have its modern equivalents in the culture of the self-help manual, the happiness industry and chemical “solutions” to discontent – all ways of sedating ourselves from the horrors of climate change, terrorism, and economic collapse. 

Teasingly layered and self-referential, the proceedings begin as Candide (Matthew Needham) is treated to a play-within-a-play version of his adventures thus far, scripted from his journals and performed by actors in an exquisite toy theatre.  He eventually storms off, furious at the idiotic rationalising passivity of Ian Redford's nicely absurd Pangloss and determined to “change my story/And make my fate”. 

This ambition is eventually echoed by 21st century Sarah (Katy Stephens), the sole survivor of the smart 18th birthday party where her daughter, nihilistically sure that the human race needs culling for its abuse of the planet, begins by massacring her family (heads exploding in cascades of red ribbon). When Sarah comes to negotiate with prospective film-makers of her book about the catastrophe, Ravenhill has a lot of fun with the idea that she is chaperoned by a controlling “narrative therapist” (very amusing Ishia Bennison) determined to protect her client's wish that it be  “a story about healing”.

There's something faintly glib about the final episode, set in the Pangloss Institute in 2032, where Pangloss's discovery of a gene for optimism threatens the human race with (in Sarah's view) spiritual annihilation. But there is a wonderful double-edged coda, when a cryogenically preserved Candide is confronted by his first love Cunegonde, now 400 years old and magnificently played by veteran actress Susan Engel. She has survived everything (“Atom bomb/ I saw the bright side”) in the unquenchable hope of his kiss. “Things could be so much better,” says a reluctant Candide, disgusted at her age. “They couldn't. Believe me,” she responds drily.

To October 26; 0844 800 1110