“Candida” by George Bernard Shaw is currently showing at The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. The ambitious director Paul Miller continues his exploration of the plays of the great Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw with his latest offering: “Candida”. That makes it 4 so far. Previously he has put on “Misalliance”, “The Philanderer” and “Widowers’ Houses”. Shaw wrote 60 plays so only 56 to go.
As well being a prolific writer, Shaw was active in politics in London from the 1880s. He was a founder member of The Fabian Society, The London County Council and the London School of Economics and Political Science. His two passions were Christian Socialism and the Woman Question. “Candida,” written in 1894 brings together these two issues in a delightful comedy that combines incisive social commentary and profound psychological insight. It has not been seen on the English stage for twenty years so this is a wonderful opportunity to savour Shaw at his most mischievous and entertaining.
The first thing to catch the eye is the wonderful set by Simon Daw. He has recreated the drawing room of a Victorian parson in the 1890s. The parson in question is the Reverend James Mavor Morell (Martin Hutson), a Christian Socialist who devotes himself to the poor of the East End of London. We meet him as he discusses his diary for next week with his assistant Miss Proserpine Garnett (Sarah Middleton). He has invitations to speak most nights, in places like Hoxton, Bethnal Green, Mare Street Hackney and Victoria Park. We get a wonderful sense of these meetings from the notices that have been plastered all over the interior of the Orange Tree Theatre. So we read about The Eight Hour Day or The Fabian Society Lectures or a list of demands calling for Pensions for the Old People, Allotments for All and Real Free Schools. And right in the centre is a poster advertising a meeting of The Christian Socialist Society with a special lecture on Women’s Suffrage. On his desk James Morell has a painting of The Assumption of the Virgin. Candida (Claire Lams) whose name in Latin means dazzling white is in some ways a modern version of the purity and faith of the Virgin. The idea of the Angel in the House was a central value of high Victorian Christian Socialism. Into this rather precious household comes one Mr Marchbanks (Joseph Potter) an 18 year Byronic poet and aristocrat. So we have the eternal love triangle played out in the rarefied world of Christian Socialism and East End missionary work.
Shaw brings out the tensions between the public good works and the private passions of our three protagonists. Confronted with the reality that Marchbanks loves his wife, James Morell becomes almost Othello like in his rage and jealousy. He cannot control his temper and violently manhandles his rival. There is much comic laughter as the two wrestle on the floor but even so, one notices that Morell has feelings that are not easily reconciled with his religious beliefs. Candida comes close to playing the part of a cougar as she proposes to her husband that he give her the green light to seduce Marchbanks because otherwise he will get his knowledge of women from the wrong sort. Marchbanks, for his part has to come to terms with the reality that love inevitably settles down into routine that involves; putting the rubbish out, putting the kettle on and washing the dishes. These hum drum realities have proved to be the stumbling block for young poets and Romantics from time immemorial. In a brilliant scene Candida plays judge and asks her two rivals what they can offer her? It’s a fine inversion of the judgement of Paris. Her Solomonesque choice is both surprising and moving.
Paul Miller is to be congratulated on giving us a fascinating insight into the world of George Bernard Shaw and the London of the 1890s. I look forward to his next Shaw offering with great anticipation.
Review by John O’Brien