HOW do you solve the Edinburgh Festival argument about whether stand-up comedy is better than theatre? Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre has produced a jazzed-up version of Voltaire's novel Candide with healthy helpings of both.
One moment you are in the middle of an 18th-century text complete with Inquisition, blacked-up slave and trip to golden El Dorado. The next, Frank Woodley's engaging Candide is ad-libbing in front of curtain, explaining the action with a few handy references to his genitalia.
Author Tom Wright has taken most of his play Optimism (Candide's subtitle) direct from Voltaire's novel, which was written to poke fun at the naive optimism of 18th-century philosophers who ignored manmade and natural disasters and claimed a perfect God must have made this "the best of all possible worlds" where "all is for the best".
Wright, who creates what he calls a "pretext" for a play, has done almost no modernising. The story is of an innocent young man, Candide, who scours the world for his first love Cungonde, encountering rape, pillage, murder, war, religious persecution, new-found wealth and then constant exploitation. In the process, the optimistic philosophy ingrained by his teacher Pangloss is utterly discredited, until the only option for him is to drop the big questions and cultivate small beauties as a gardener.
The big time leap comes in Michael Kantor's production, which injects the poignant cynicism of 1980s songs, energetic movement from samba to yodelling, a knees-up and actors in circus costumes taking trips on luxury jets. Woodley, once half of the double act Lano and Woodley that won the 1994 Perrier Award, plays a large role in putting Voltaire's thoughts into context: in three stand-up interludes with the audience, he breaks things down, explains the obscure plot and proposes modern parallels.
When the show debuted in Melbourne this year, some people questioned the relevance of performing Voltaire today. Actually, the adaptation asks some universal questions about the nature of life and how to live it, but then offers its own answers through its irrepressible song, dance and Woodley's winningly physical comedy.
When I meet him, he confesses that in actual fact he is only 10, and so the perfect age to play this man-child. "I was born on 29 February, so I've got that whole loophole thing going, and I'm only 10 in some ways," he confesses, mentioning that by less strict measures he is 41.
He has made his fame and fortune encapsulating a naive innocence onstage for audiences across the globe to laugh at, and onstage he looks childlike, his big physical gestures emphasising his apparent vulnerability. Like his name Frank, an apt translation of Candide, he comes across as honest and straightforward; a man who starts a thought, leaves it hanging, tries again and keeps shooting little sentence strands like arrows at the problem.
He believes the main philosophical question of Candide – how to cope with the world's suffering and still manage to laugh – remains pertinent and at the heart of comedy. "I think surely the question of positive thinking, optimism, whether you can love life or not, surely that's as relevant today as it has ever been, especially the fundamental question of having a life that you feel is a good life," says Woodley.
"I was thinking about the different ways of looking at suffering. If you empathise, you feel sadness and can be overwhelmed with the seriousness of life. Then you can just flick modes and suddenly something can be hilariously funny, even your own suffering. Most really big comedy has a relationship to suffering of some sort."
The brash, comedic interpretation of Candide is quite appropriate. Comedien means actor in French, reflecting the foundations of French theatre as either comedy or tragedy. And although the country might vaunt its intellectualism, anyone who has seen a Saturday night television variety show will see that les Francais are just as fond of banana-slipping slapstick as the next Australian.
Comedy, says Woodley, is another way of trying to juggle the great questions. "One theory is that comedy is closer to the mystic traditions than to the dogmatic traditions because it's about dissolving fixed ideas," he ponders. "The way that most jokes work is you have an idea about something that the whole audience focuses on, but you explode it in a surprising way. There's something in that unknowing, taking you into the place where your fixed ideas shatter, giving you access to wonder and a more open-minded state."
There's an element of this for the actors too, as each night Woodley completely improvises the start of the second act with David Woods, who plays the character Martin. Then there's the mixture of out-and-out stand-up with a classical text, which might raise the eyebrows of traditional Edinburgh International Festival-goers. "I don't have any reverence for any formal rules of what you should or shouldn't do in performance," he says. "For me, it's all about connecting with an audience. Michael has created a pastiche of theatrical styles and that allows me to do the stand-up bits. If the rest of the play was a consistent melodrama or consistently satirical, I think the little bits of stand-up might stick out like dog's balls. Because the show is already quite choppy, I think it works really well."
The play is a riot of colour and styles, and Wright admits that in some places the actors play their lines with a cynical touch. Although Woodley tries to avoid this, and stresses that he is self-taught and new to acting, his interpretation is sophisticated and persuasive.
Famously, the novel ends with Candide rediscovering an aged and dilapidated Cungonde, settling down with her, and resolving: we must cultivate our garden. Woodley, who chooses to say "work in our garden", isn't convinced.
"You completely relate to Candide's need for optimism, and if his optimism gets stripped away, what's the alternative? I'm personally a bit unsatisfied by Voltaire's conclusion. He's unclear about what he's saying and it seems a little pat for me. I try to not do it as if I'm cynical about it and going: 'Now we must cultivate our gardens, like that's really going to help.' I try to do it in a state of being open but with a hint of humility. I can feel a sweetness in it, but I don't have confidence."
Unlike Voltaire, we are living in an era of economic and climactic pessimism. Then again, you just need to look at the last American election for a rush of 18th-century optimism in that rousing chorus: "Yes, we can". "What more optimistic statement is there?" agrees Woodley. "That's not considered ridiculous. I mean, it is in a way. What will people say in four years' time? No, we couldn't?"
But will you enjoy an evening laughing, singing, yodelling and puzzling over it all alongside Candide? Yes, you will.
Optimism, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Saturday until Monday, 8pm (and Sunday, 2.30pm), www.edinburgh-festivals.com