Brighton College have taken on a demanding task with their production of Mark Ravenhill’s Candide, first performed by the RSC in 2013. The original Candide was an excoriating, Enlightenment satire mocking the philosopher Leibniz’s idea that we live in 'the best of all possible worlds’, a position known as optimism. In Candide, Voltaire set out to puncture this idea by introducing the eponymous character, and his ill-fated entourage, to a myriad of calamities: earthquakes, tidal waves, war and more. After each disaster, Candide’s faith in his optimistic credo takes a dent, but somehow our hero has just enough optimism to struggle on to the next debacle.
My glass was more than half full in my opinion of this spirited and ambitious production
Ravenhill’s transformation takes the audience further afield both in time and thought, in grappling with just how justifiable optimism is as an outlook in a contemptorary setting. Optimistic ideas are tested in different modern contexts, most notably an eighteenth-birthday party where the birthday girl herself executes most of her family in a nihilistic rage due to the state of her generation, her family and her world.
Director Thomas Kenwright and his young cast have been ambitious then in taking on a philosophically complex work whose register ranges from the horrific, through to the comic and onward to the melancholic. Being a student cast, leeway must be given, as not all performances are vocally clear or dynamic. Also, on occasion, the movements are those of the students themselves rather than those of their characters, which can be distracting. Despite this, though, there is certainly a broad pool of talent. Gabriel Ross gives us a suitably dandyish Candide and Phoebe Mayhew, as Sarah, gets stronger as the play proceeds, building a picture of a mother shorn both of her sense of place and indeed, her optimism. There are other strong performances too, but for this reviewer, Ferdy Ray’s role as the hopelessly jet lagged screenwriter stood out both for its humour and for the way the performer balanced the janky, aside-strewn speeches with such verve and timing.
Ultimately, the play itself is mature enough to resist boxing itself in with a ‘message’ and it seems to acknowledge that the tyranny of uniform happiness can be as awful as the tyranny of suffering. Did I leave Candide as an optimist? I’m not sure, but my glass was more than half full in my opinion of this spirited and ambitious production.