‘It’s a beautiful city,’ says Mark Ravenhill in the Abattoir Bar, the performers’ lounge of the Underbelly in Edinburgh that makes the pop-up punters’ bars dotted about the place look downright dingy. Like everything at the venue the name is obviously cow-themed, but it also feels appropriate: whether he likes it or not, Ravenhill’s name remains ‘edgy’ in the popular imagination, a by-word for violence and the grim sexual satire of his early plays, so people are often surprised to meet the softly spoken, affable raconteur in the flesh.
You might be forgiven for thinking Ravenhill’s gone soft in his later career; his Fringe show Tell Me the Truth About Love is an evening of cabaret numbers written by Ravenhill and his collaborator Connor Mitchell, alongside a song cycle by Auden and Britten. It’s a sentimental and gently amusing piece sung by Jamie Mcdermott with a pianist. As we talk, however, and Ravenhill makes his way through an impressive burger, it’s clear he’s lost none of his bite; the playwright speaks candidly about art, politics and his upcoming show for the RSC, a response to Voltaire’s novella Candide.
When we last met a few months ago, Ravenhill’s version of Brecht’s Life of Galileo was opening at Stratford – an invigorated but loyal adaptation, and his first full production there as writer-in-residence. This time around he’s developing a much looser reworking of a classic, whose stylistic inspirations include Cloud Atlas and Synecdoche New York (‘brilliant – the best Charlie Kaufman film’); this riff on Candide is not just ‘a journey round the world’ like Voltaire’s, but a journey through time frames and alternate realities. ‘The play that we’ve got now is basically five acts,’ he explains, ‘each of a slightly different style. Each could stand alone, almost like five plays – they interlink thematically, and though little strands connect up there’s not one continuous narrative.’
Beginning in the same period as the book and ending ‘about twenty or thirty years in the future’, Ravenhill’s twist on the tale crosses centuries via a Venetian noblewoman’s house, an eighteenth birthday party in modern Britain and ‘the utopian world of Eldorado where gold is worthless and sheep fly’.
It’s an intriguing approach, one that’s borne out of affectionate familiarity with the text. ‘I’d always really liked Candide – I thought it was funny, and each time I read it I found it quite shocking and really fresh. I’ve just always had a thing about it.’ Whilst looking for ‘a way in’ to an adaptation, he kept returning to the mantra of the character Pangloss, through which Voltaire lampoons a certain strand of philosophical optimism: ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. Once Ravenhill realised ‘he’s talking about a philosophy in which there are other worlds possible, it just somehow occurred to me that I knew the sort of play that I wanted to write. It’s quite a popular contemporary thought really, the idea of parallel universes.’
The original text is also episodic, and its short chapters seem to tap into a fairly contemporary vein of multiple narratives and the soundbitey world of twitter. Ravenhill’s taken advantage of this both on and offstage; during the run-up to the production he’s been tweeting Voltaire’s prose, translating and cutting up Candide into 140-character chunks under the handle @TweetCandide. Given the RSC’s recent experimentation with digital platforms, is this Ravenhill jumping on the live/ online crossover bandwagon? ‘It’s just one way of encouraging people to be familiar with the original,’ he insists, ‘while the play stands completely fine by itself and there’s nothing you wont get if you haven’t read the book, you will get more from it if you have. It’s only about a hundred pages – and it’s a good read.’
One of Candide’s episodes is based on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which ‘for Voltaire, and for other Europeans, was quite shocking.’ In fact, the natural disaster is often cited as the story’s key inspiration, and as Ravenhill points out, ‘in many ways Voltaire was an optimist as a philosopher, and then something so terrible as the Lisbon earthquake led him to question his own optimism. In Candide, he’s satirising a particular form of optimism, but not as a pessimist; it’s actually a debate within optimism.’
So, several war-torn and environmentally catastrophic centuries later, are we all pessimists now? ‘There’s a big gap between our overall sense and the way we conduct ourselves day-to-day. Twenty years ago, if you passed someone in a corridor and said how are you doing, they’d say getting by, or mustn’t grumble. That was the regular British thing. And now it’s ‘Oh, i’m doing just great!’ – there’s a Californian influence. We feel more of a social duty to be upbeat and positive, yet our general sense of the world is probably quite bleak.’
As he says though, ‘maybe a certain amount of optimism is necessary. Globally, people feel pretty grim about whether humanity’s going to make it through the next fifty years, whether the planet’s going to be habitable or the economy’s ever going to recover. Maybe if you fully took that on board you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.’ Is he an optimist? ‘I experience exactly that strange gap. It’s that contradiction that’s compelled me to write this, which is not dissimilar to Voltaire’s contradiction, though his was very specifically motivated’.
In his writing outside of the theatre, Ravenhill seems to espouse a kind of optimistic pragmatism; the day before we meet he kicked off the Fringe with an opening address focussing on the state of the arts and funding over the coming years. Whilst the speech was misconstrued by a few as welcoming austerity (the BBC ran with the patently misleading headline “Mark Ravenhill: Austerity ‘could be good for arts’”), many were inspired by his call for the sector to openly discuss the economic situation, weigh up options and articulate the alternative. ‘Let’s not ignore the fact that whoever gets into power is going to follow this ideology’, he tells me, ‘they will keep cutting everything, so what do we want to do about that? Consider all possibilities, plan ahead.’
This involves asking difficult questions. ‘Are there actually some restricting things about dependence on funding? Does it make artists too well-behaved or obedient? There is something about applying for funding that makes you think in a slightly bureaucratic, ticky-box way,’ he says, ‘though that’s clearly a lesser evil than having to exist purely in the marketplace.’ His talk was ‘about realism really,’ confronting a difficult prospect and ‘not existing in this idealistic world’. He’s also concerned that we’re not sufficiently armed to mount the counter-attack; ‘as far as the bigger picture goes, I don’t think we’re clear together on the general message about why the arts should be funded.’ Whilst theatres and organisations have mounted successful campaigns targeting specific cuts (Ravenhill mentions the pressure group Theatre Matters), he worries that we ‘still don’t quite have the basic sense of why art matters’.
We’re getting out of our remit here, but I can’t resist: why does it? ‘It’s a different way of thinking. Even if you think capitalism needs to get back to where it was and save itself, you need creative sideways thinking. People who can think about different possibilities, ask left-field questions, crazy and new questions. If the whole vocabulary of a society is completely influenced by one section, that corporate language, it’s not a forward thinking society and it’s heading for collapse.’ Should art ever be commodified or subject to market forces? ‘In my ideal world, it would be absolutely separate from those things. But I think in any realistic future, in my lifetime, it’s always going to be a trade-off between art as commodity and art as something else.’
We talk about the Fringe, which Ravenhill considers fondly, remembering the ‘terrible’ student productions he started out in almost thirty years ago. Edinburgh ‘always rewards the novel’, he says, ‘which can sometimes mean a bit gimmicky, but often the work is very innovative.’ As a ‘crazy free market’, he reflects, the festival can also act as a kind of leveller, since regardless of experience or reputation ‘you’re in the same programme as all these fantastic theatre companies’. That’s a bit of an illusion, though, surely? Venue hire, marketing costs and so on crush out the companies who can’t stump up the cash. When this leads back into a funding conversation, Ravenhill summarises with a suitably contemporary mantra: ‘whatever situation we’re in, art is always going to have a problem with money – it’s a case of trying to find the least problematic way,’ he laughs, ‘the least worst of all possible worlds’.
Main image by Martin Pope. The RSC’s Candide is on at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 29th August – 26th October 2013.