I’ve waited a few weeks to write a response to Opera in the Domain, because I wanted to see Optimism first. I love the way Lindy Hume programmed these together but, now that I’ve seen the play, I am nonplussed. Two more different theatrical experiences it is hard to imagine. Both comedies. Both viciously satirical. Both zany music / cabaret / hard to pin down. Both faithful to Voltaire, in their own way. But while I came out of Candide feeling giddy with delight, I came out of Optimism feeling black. Humorously black, but black none the less. It was champagne and oysters versus whisky and cigarettes.
Leonard Bernstein’s vision of Candide is seen through the rose-coloured tint of his exuberant music, which parodies all sorts of fluffy musical moments, like icing cup cakes with rude words. The chorus sings “Oh what a day / For an auto da fe” with such enthusiasm that it’s hard not to be caught up in their cheeriness – mass crimes have been committed on less impressive performances. Furthermore, the performances — Emma Matthews glittering and being gay, David Hobson crooning etc — are heady stuff.
The music is equally important in Michael Kantor’s version, but instead of being light relief from a grim narrative it is grotesque. You get the mud-voiced slave singing ‘I could be happy’ as a dirge and the brilliant comic timing of the Hayzee Fantazee’s ‘Shiny Shiny’ number – still parodies, but the cup cakes have been well and truly smashed and smeared with excrement. The performances are still pretty breathtaking – Frank Woodley’s extended content-free circumlocutions, some potty humour and a bit of improv to keep it dangerous. But the physical theatre aspect tends towards chaos and the dance numbers are mechanical.
Towards the end Frank Woodley’s Candide muses about a finger-painting god, swiping blue paint in the sky, green on the ground, a yellow sun… and finally ending up with a brown mess. And that kind of sums up how I felt about this play. Brilliant gestures, ideas, performances, pulled inexorably down into the dirt.
If you know the world’s a terrible place but still like the view from behind rose-coloured glasses, Leonard Bernstein is your man. If you prefer pessimism, you’ll love Optimism.