First Night: Voltaire's fire fails to ignite

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The Independent Online

National Theatre


IN THE history of musicals, there has scarcely been a richer, bolder, wittier or more majestic score than Leonard Bernstein's for his glorious but unwieldy . Everyone from Lillian Hellman to John Wells via Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim has tried to turn this extravagant but famously problematic musical dramatisation of Voltaire into a viable piece of theatre.

Now the National Theatre has come up with a "new" book written and directed by John Caird, assisted by Trevor Nunn.

When the National's thin-sounding 14-piece band strikes up the famous overture your spirits sink. Musically, things improve from there on in and balancing this is the dominating presence of Simon Russell Beale as the narrator, Voltaire, caught in the spotlight in the centre of the vast, bare Olivier stage.

Caird's new book gives Voltaire a larger, clearer slice of the action, guiding you through 's physical and philosophical journey from naive optimism to true enlightenment and whenever Russell Beale is in charge the storytelling works. But even the strength of this new thread cannot bind the show together.

There are several pluses, notably Caird's use of the National's ensemble company. John Napier's spare designs throw the focus onto the actors.

They use Nicholas Nickelby-style techniques whipping up different atmospheres across Europe from drowning at sea to a grand ball in Venice, assisted by endless gusts of smoke to enhance Paul Pyant's lighting.

Beverley Klein brings the house down as the ill-used Old Lady. She grabs her big scene where she lists her suffering every indignity known to womankind with tremendously engaging zest and then goes one further by launching into a splendidly assured and terrifically funny rendition of "I Am Easily Assimilated". Similarly, Simon Day's pompous Maximilian seizes his comedy with delicious aplomb.

Caird's version is more faithful to Voltaire's ideas, but the plodding rhythm too often fails to take fire dramatically. Musically, he has rendered it as a chamber piece but the show is stranded in the bombast of the space.