I am baffled by Candide. There is so much that is excellent about Jonny Danciger’s production – the acting talent, the staging, the moments when the direction mocked its own musical theatricality – but there is so much that is wrong with the play itself.
After weeks of sordid revelations about the way powerful men sexually manipulate their juniors, there is nothing funny about something that cake-ices sexual exploitation with the bells and smells of musical theatre, and makes rape the punch line of a very tired joke about sexually predatory women. The defence that it is a satire – that it condemns the repulsive world it presents – feels unconvincing when you find yourself laughing at the show’s victims as much as at its villains. It is a huge shame that such a melting pot of Oxford theatrical talent got it so wrong with their choice of musical.
David Garrick is a real talent: as the double-breasted suit wearing, drivel-spewing philosopher Pangloss he gave us plummy toned and lecherous buffoonery that fractured into a kind of pathetic vulnerability. Amelia Gabriel proved her impressive range as Old Woman in a part that could not have been further from her passionate Anna Karenina last Hilary. All cocked hips and devastating winks, she squeezed every juicy drop out of the grand old theatrical trope of leery old women, blending a comic physicality with her gorgeous voice. Freddie Crowley also deserves a mention for his master class in pink satin self-obsession as Maximilian.
The textiness of the set, designed by Christina Hill, which included blocks covered in type print and tree made of paper, seemed like an enjoyable nod to the verboseness of the characters. Danciger also did a fantastic job with the chorus movement and staging, creating some very convincing ships with only six people, some rope, and a steering wheel. The performance was a little beset by sound trouble – Crowley’s microphone wasn’t on in the first scene, and at points the words of Voltaire (played by Gavin Fleming) were drowned out by the music – which was unfortunate in the professional setting of the Playhouse. With a running time of nearly three hours that left the audience flagging through the final scenes, it could also have done with a more ruthless edit. But these are technical points, and should not detract from the undeniable creativity of cast and crew and the slick production they have created.
But in the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to like it. It’s true that when- ever you revive an older work, you are faced with bridging a historical gap. The case of Candide is also particularly challenging – a director must tease a contemporary interpretation out of something that is engaged with the concerns and expectations of both an eighteenth-century readership (Voltaire’s original novella) and a twentieth-century audience (Leonard Bernstein and Hugh Wheeler’s musical adaptation). Relevance is not the issue: in its exposition of the exploitation of the common man, Voltaire’s biting social satire would have something to say in any period of history. The problem is one of tone. Obviously the impact of satirical drama relies on making the audience laugh at something repulsive. You laugh, you question, you criticise – comedy gives the diesel to a political engine. But when you’re dealing with very sensitive material, the question that should always be asked is, who are we being directed to laugh at?
One particularly troubling song, ‘Glitter and be Gay’, attempts to create some psychological complexity around Cunegonde’s (played by Laura Coppinger) horrifying situation as the sex slave of two men. But Richard Wilbur’s lyrics do not do any kind of justice to the seriousness of the subject mat- ter: “The dreadful, dreadful shame I feel” is a shabby gesture towards a representation of a rape victim’s psyche, and the overall message of the song – that jewels and luxury are some compensation for her treatment – makes light of the repulsive subject matter. The production made a decent attempt at injecting seriousness into the flippancy: Coppinger turned the repeated ‘ha, ha’ lyric into maniacal laughter, and ended the song by smearing red lipstick across her face, with disturbing effect, but even that could not overcome the overall insensitivity.
We cannot judge Voltaire by our modern moralities with 250 years of history between us, but in my opinion, Barricade Arts misjudged their material and picked a play that does little justice to the talent of the cast and crew.
Candide runs from 8-11 November.