Candida was the second of what George Bernard Shaw dubbed his ‘plays pleasant’; it proved to be the playwright’s ticket to respectability and a way onto Victorian London stages. Unsurprisingly, it is a very safe play concerning the marriage of a lovely Victorian lady whose feistiness remains firmly within the bounds of respectability and a slightly buffoonish priest who is thoroughly inoffensive if not a tad too satisfied with his own oratory prowess.
The play explores the ripples caused in this acceptable (although by no means ecstatic) domestic bliss when the couple’s protégé, Eugene Marchbanks, a young, passionate, and easily upset poet declares his love for Candida to the priest and questions their spousal commitment to each other.
These ripples are, however, only superficial, and they don’t ever come close to stirring the murky bottoms that are usually hidden away within any longstanding human relationship, especially a marital one. The directorial choice to play up Marchbanks’s dribbling hypersensitivity divests him of the kind of depth Shaw presumably had in mind when he described this character as ‘a strange creature – a poet – a bundle of nerves – a genius’. This removes any real prospect of this man having enough of an effect on a woman like Candida to make her seriously consider her life choices, which means the fling between them is bound to remain at a very safe distance from consummation. Candida’s ultimate choice comes as no surprise, having been prescribed from the start: her fling with Marchbanks arouses maternal pity rather than the dangerous kind of uncontrollable lust in her.
The supporting characters are instrumental in bringing an element of pizzazz to the performance, and both Jo Herbert as Proserpine Garnett and Christopher Godwin as Mr Burgess add a layer of humour and liveliness to the play which goes a long way towards distracting the audience from the overall tweeness of the situation between the three lead characters. Herbert gives a nuanced performance as Reverend Morrell’s spinsterish secretary, a bundle of controlled hysteria and Victorian frustrations which nonetheless makes wry observations about contemporary attitudes to women: how lucky Reverend Mill is to be blessed with a ‘fine, penetrating intellect instead of mere emotions’, she notes. Needless to say, the irony goes unnoticed by her obtuse interlocutor.
Jamie Parker and Charity Wakefield are delightful as the Morrells, and their cosy household is brought to life with loving attention to detail, from the intricate tapestry that covers the walls of their study to the impressive floor to ceiling bookcases and lushly upholstered chaises longues. It is a lovely world that is being evoked, and even though there are intimations of a not-so-lovely world outside the Morrells’ front door, it has the decency to remain there.
Aberration from the socially accepted norms comes in short and comical bursts (‘I am a BEER tee-totaller’, exclaims Proserpine in response to inquiries as to her light inebriation, adding ‘I don’t LIKE beer!’), or in vague, easily dismissible Freudian gestures (Candida seems transfixed by the hot poker she holds up while Eugene reads to her). Altogether, this production does not disappoint if all you’re after is a light-hearted piece of theatrical entertainment.