Optimism / Faith Healer / Diaspora

Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2009

**** / **** / ***

In practice, each year’s Edinburgh International Festival includes at least one theatrical offering which gives a vigorous seeing-to to a classic text pour épater les bourgeois. Since this year’s Festival is themed around the Enlightenment, what better tactic than to mark the 250th anniversary of the publication of Voltaire’s Candide by letting some Australians reconfigure its satire for a 21st-century stage? Tom Wright’s script for Optimism consisted of 19 scenes filleted from the novel and performed by a cast of nine, led by Perrier Award-winning comedian and clown Frank Woodley (seen on last year’s Fringe in his own show Possessed). Facially, Woodley has a kind of Harry Langdonesque innocence (he also wears Pierrot make-up throughout the play); verbally and even physically, he here proved himself adept at corpsing other members of the cast with his improvised one-liners. Voltaire satirised the absurdity of Leibniz’s notion that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds; Michael Kantor’s production for Malthouse Melbourne updated the absurdities. In the novel, the central scene of Candide’s disillusionment comes when he encounters a mutilated slave whose amputations are the price he pays so that we can eat sugar; here, the scene ended with the slave singing a melancholy dirge which turned out, amazingly, to be Altered Images’ “I Can Be Happy”. The rest of the score ran from Devo to Frank Ifield; at one point, Woodley played percussion on the bald pate of Ridiculusmus actor/director David Woods. A decorous evening of high culture this wasn’t, but what the hell: surely we can take one night off from guarding the citadel.

Part of the Enlightenment theme is a recognition of Scotland’s place within world culture, and thus of its presence among the group of countries whose populations have spread abroad. Ong Keng Sen was not so much the author as the curator of Diaspora, presented at the beginning of the Festival by TheatreWorks of Singapore. The evening consisted of live and programmed music, theatrical performance and film pieces by a group of artists including a Vietnamese American, a Chinese Indonesian and a Muslim Scot. The evening seemed more a montage than an ordered argument, with for instance Navin Rawanchaikul’s film Searching For Navin coming over like a kind of Bollywood Mark Wallinger piece. Nevertheless, themes both of hybridity and of origin proved pervasive, with most contributors ending by musing upon where they wanted their remains to rest after their deaths. Watching a performance on the anniversary of my own sister’s death when neither she nor I lived in our homeland, this struck a personal chord with me.

Not exactly Enlightenment-themed but worth working into the Festival fabric is a mini-retrospective to mark the 80th birthday of playwright Brian Friel, beginning with his 1979 masterpiece Faith Healer. The late Donal McCann, who made the central role his own, played protagonist Frank Hardy as a man hollowed out by his unreliable “gift”; in Robin Lefèvre’s revival for Dublin’s Gate Theatre, Owen Roe is a man driven, possessed and ultimately consumed by it. There seems to be more humour in this production than in most: both inconsistencies and repetitions in the accounts of Frank, his wife Grace and his manager Teddy regularly elicit laughs. But this does not diminish the power of this quartet of monologues as the characters recall their professional and personal dealings and various incidents in Frank’s career, in particular the evening of his death. The stage may often be in shadow, but the play sheds a sombre, slightly eerie but still penetrating light upon basic matters of identity and relationship.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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