Optimism by Tom Wright, After Voltaire.

Optimism by Tom Wright, After Voltaire.
Sydney Theatre Company / Malthouse Melbourne / Edinburgh International Festival. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until February 20.

Optimism opens revealing a household with its smiles painted on.

Director / Auteur Michael Kantor’s stunning opening tableau sets a vaguely discomforting tone - clown smiles and clothes bear a vaguely distorted edge.

There’s something darker beneath the façade, like the undercurrent driving the spirited, mischievous entertainment that follows. ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ springs eternal as the punch-line sentiment to a succession of horrors, torments, tragedies and atrocities.

Tom Wright’s Optimism adapts Voltaire’s satirical 18th century best-seller Candide under its alternate title (also the philosophy targeted by Voltaire’s satire). Google for a summary of Voltaire’s original and you’ll find Wright compresses the scenario pretty faithfully.

Cheekily contemporised with pop culture, Optimism infuses high octane vaudeville, clowning and stand-up, dance-clubbing gorillas, pop’s most optimistic songs (generally delivered ironically), and modern analogies for Voltaire’s disasters, including a terrorist plane hijack, bringing the dark side of human behavior into contemporary context.

Kantor’s production delivers hilarity amidst the darkest of circumstances. But does the balance swing just a little too far? Optimism entertains uproariously, but does its broad comedy overwhelm Voltaire’s satire?

Comic Frank Woodley (Lano and Woodley) portrays the hero, Candide, as a kind of wide-eyed, sad-sack clown, with excursions into stand-up. Despite disaster upon calamity, Candide passionately adheres to the philosophy of Optimism, espoused by his tutor Pangloss (Barry Otto). When Woodley breaks the fourth wall there’s a risk - Candide seems to have left the stage for Woodley to launch into stand-up.

Barry Otto is a fantastical, clownish tutor, maintaining his unshakable, simplistic belief despite repeated catastrophes. He is just one of a committed acting ensemble totally in synch with Kantor’s high energy, frenetic vision.

Optimism is surreal, visually entrancing and disturbing, courtesy of Anna Tregloan’s costume and set designs, in interaction with Paul Jackson’s lighting. The use of plastic sheeting and large electric fans should be seen, not described. The dominating aircraft fuselage anchors the production in a contemporary context.

George S. Kaufman is famously quoted as saying ‘Satire is what closes on Saturday night.’

Optimism isn’t closing any time soon.

Vibrant, brimming with wit, and a visual treat, just how well Optimism actually satisfies in service of Voltaire’s satire is another question.

Neil Litchfield

Image: Francis Greenslade, Barry Otto, David Woods, Alison Whyte, Frank Woodley, Caroline Craig & Amanda Bishop in Sydney Theatre Company’s OPTIMISM © Lisa Tomasetti. Sydney Theatre Company.

Opera in the Domain audiences will experience an alternate stage incarnation of Voltaire’s Candide, a star-studded concert performance of the admired, flawed, frequently revised Bernstein musical / opera at the end of January.

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