Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Paul Miller
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Paul Miller’s five-year tenure as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree Theatre has been marked by programming that contrasts challenging contemporary works and revivals of classics by writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Terence Rattigan to satisfy traditionalists. Candida is Miller’s fourth production of a play by Shaw, a writer who, elsewhere, seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years, but whose wit and perceptions of social and political issues still reverberate strongly.
Written in 1894, Candida centres on a love triangle in which neither physical attraction nor romance plays very much part. The comedy comes from battles of conflicting ideas: faith versus social justice; honesty versus self-delusion; poetry versus prose. Shaw not so much explodes the values that represent Victorian hypocrisy as nudges them very gently, using the tools of humour and irony. He also satirises the pillars of the establishment and good old “British pluck”. The writer’s reputation for producing plays that are overlong and too wordy is not endorsed here in two hours (including interval) that fly by briskly.
Candida’s husband is the Reverend James Morell, played with brittle self-confidence by Martin Hutson. He has dissociated himself from his father-in-law, Burgess (Michael Simkins in loveable rogue mode), an East End factory owner, because of his exploitation of women workers, but he happily puts out the hand of friendship upon learning that the women have been sacked. Images of Socialist pamphlets with headlines such as “A Plea for Poor Law Reform” appear around Simon Daw’s set design, but they symbolise support for change from Morell in which words are not matched by deeds.
Morell’s rival is 18-year-old Eugene Marchbanks, a poet of aristocratic birth who is Candida’s junior by 15 years. Joseph Potter plays him as an impetuous, lovesick youth, prone to bouts of hysteria and “poetic horror”. The choice between the poet’s flair and vigour and the clergyman’s dedication and reliability are laid before Candida, a lady who turns out to be not as hapless as she at first appears.
There is an air of mischief to Claire Lams’ Candida, who, for most of the first act, appears like a passive bystander to the tussle for her affections. However, this is a Candida who is always in control, as if playfully refereeing a boxing match between two men who are both, in their own ways, inadequate. She proves to be the perfect mouthpiece for the playwright’s feminist sentiments.
Impeccable casting and strong ensemble performances have become trademarks of Miller’s work, Here, Kwaku Mills’ flamboyant junior cleric, Alexander Mill and Sarah Middleton’s prim and devoted secretary, Proserpine Garnett add texture to a production which, in common with the play itself, simply bubbles with wit.
Runs until 11 January 2020 | Image: Contributed