Being unfamiliar with Voltaire, clueless as to what an operetta was, being unable to think of Bernstein musical despite knowing his name, yet well aware of the quality of Sedos I was intrigued about their latest production of Candide. A Wednesday night at the Bridewell Theatre seemed as good a time as any to conduct a research experiment and fill the gaping gaps in my knowledge.
The 1759 novella was first adapted for the operetta stage 60 years ago by Leonard Bernstein, Hugh Wheeler and Richard Wilbur (here they use the John Caird Royal National Theatre version of 1999) and remains as witty and entertaining as ever. An Enlightenment satire on wealth, class, politics and philosophy or – ‘metaphysico-theologico- cosmologico-panalogy’ – it is all of course very pertinent to our age and era. Essentially it is a musing on the meaning of life, and the lengths we go to seek happiness and perfection, even whilst we long to believe that right now we are those things – or in the words of the refrain of philosophy tutor Pangloss, who essentially shapes the narrative and outlook of the characters, we are in the ‘best of all possible worlds.’
The stage is sparse, but atmospheric in its simplicity, with the white costumes and white sails of the ship not only being a metaphor for the purity and naivety of our protagonist Candide (Mark Siddall), but cleverly used in the casting of shadows and glimpsing of the orchestra.
Narrated by Voltaire and Pangloss (both played Stephen Russell) we, and Candide, embark on a journey through the full gamut of human personalities; the evil acts of misogyny, rape, prostitution, bribery and disaster; relationships; place; society – and all guided by Pangloss’s Russian doll-esque theory of meaning, that combines faith, determinism, free will and teleology to arrive at the conclusion that everything that happens is perfect and planned in this ‘best of all possible worlds.’ Unlike Candide however, we’re not so blindly optimistic.
Russell brilliantly keeps the play hung together and moving, sharp and attuned. Mark Siddall managed to keep his eyes impressively wide as the green Candide, and had perfect deadpan comic timing. Emma Morgan is both sweet and worldly as Candide’s lover Cunegonde, with a gymnastic soprano voice that echoed around the space. The vocal layers of solo performances, choruses and the orchestra create a beautifully harmonious collective that carries Bernstein’s music well.
The music is bright and frivolous, with the opening and closing numbers in particular bursting erumpent off the stage. In fact, the 14-piece orchestra under the baton of Matt Gould is nigh on flawless, and one of my highlights of the show. It’s a playful performance, and although the silliness and hyperbole of the script not to everyone’s taste the company do well to make it accessible and relevant. At three hours total, it’s quite long for an amateur production, but then Sedos, Voltaire and Bernstein don’t perform like amateurs. As an introduction to the genre, writer and just as an evening of rousing entertainment, they succeed.
Almost the best of all possible outcomes to my experiment then.