optimismLook on the bright side

Physical comedian Frank Woodley brings a fresh perspective to Voltaire’s eternally hopeful Candide in new adaptation Optimism.


Candide, Voltaire’s archetypal innocent abroad, has trusting faith in his tutor Dr Pangloss’s maxim that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. The frequently-quoted maxim is gruesomely and wickedly tested at every turn in the eponymously-titled 18th century novella, and it’s an outlook that Frank Woodley, comic turned actor, also has trouble with.

“It’s definitely not my position. I’m optimistic only if I don’t think too deeply,” he explains during a break from rehearsals of Optimism, a modern stage adaptation of the Enlightenment satirist’s most famous work. Woodley portrays the naïve hero in the Edinburgh International Festival play, a co-production with Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Casting the Melbourne-born comedian is an inspired choice. In a career spanning over 20 years, the 41-year-old’s man-child stage persona, high pitched and accident-prone, has embedded itself in to Australia’s comedy psyche through stage and TV shows, an instantly recognisable beanpole with baggy clothes and a shabby cap. There are echoes of Keaton, Chaplin and Tati. His comedy character, like Voltaire’s creation, sees the world through trusting yet bewildered eyes, but, says Woodley, although the role of Candide uses many of his alter-ego’s character traits ”I’m not playing him as a demented, giggling idiot”.

Edinburgh is a familiar stamping ground. As part of the comedy duo Lano and Woodley he wooed the Fringe Festival in 1994, when, with collaborator Colin Lane, the pair walked away with the Perrier Comedy Award. They’ve been back many times. Since an amicable split in 2006 they have each pursued new challenges. Possessed, Woodley’s solo show at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe, about a man who falls in love with a ghost, garnered rave revues.

It’s an impressive pedigree but it doesn’t stop the nerves of a theatre neophyte; apart from a brief foray in a speed-Shakespeare production last year, Woodley says, he has never acted in anything he hasn’t created or co-created. Being a hired hand and learning other people’s lines is a new experience. It’s been slightly daunting, he admits, but also very enjoyable.

“It’s really satisfying and fun working with a big ensemble, and also enjoyable not having the responsibility of being the writer and director. I don’t feel that whatever happens is reflected completely on me, so I’m freed, but it’s also quite challenging.”

Each night, Woodley appears to go off script, scrambling, in a manner familiar to fans, to hold together a show that might or might not go off the rails. It’s a bravura performance, buoyed by a very experienced ensemble including venerable actor Barry Otto.

The cast all come from backgrounds rich in comedy. Alison Whyte and Francis Greenslade are veterans of both TV and stage, and English actor David Woods, who is now based in Australia, is one half of the comedy duo Ridiculusmus.

Like the original novella, Tom Wright’s adaptation is a picaresque romp across three continents, a flight from wars, earthquakes, pirates and pestilence. The set is dominated by a cut-away aeroplane fuselage, ranks of plush seats reflecting a more glamorous era of air travel. A light box flashes up the dizzying number of destinations and director Michael Kantor uses music to comment on the action, with a score by Iain Grandage and some memorably cheesy versions of 1980s pop classics such as Haysie Fantazee’s Shiny Shiny and I Could be Happy by Altered Image.

Although he has “an almost cartoon-like resilience”, says Woodley, Candide’s faith in optimism is finally shaken, but not shattered. But what of Voltaire’s cynical message about the corruption and hypocrisy of the world and man’s response to it?

“He doesn’t give a pat ending” he says. The cast chewed over the various interpretations of Voltaire’s philosophy but, adds Woodley, Candide’s position might turn out to be the sanest. “I think Voltaire’s saying that optimism is a delusion but it’s a crucial delusion. Yes, it’s a trick of the mind, but it’s closer to living a true life”.

Optimism, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 15-17 August, times vary From £10 0131 473 0000

Woyzeck at Pleasance Courtyard, 5-16 August

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