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Two men argue over the fate of a free-thinking woman in this sparky but wordy Shaw revival
It’s become something of a festive tradition to see an early George Bernard Shaw play revived at the Orange Tree Theatre, directed by artistic director Paul Miller: ‘Candida’ follows ‘Misalliance’ in 2017 and ‘Widowers’ Houses’ in 2014.
And, like those plays, ‘Candida’ – which Shaw wrote in 1894 – is fascinated by the unequal power balance between men and women. It starts off innocently enough, with Reverend Morell (Martin Hutson) being charismatically socialist, championing the right to fair wages and winkingly decrying his capitalist father-in-law.
But the arrival of tortured teen toff and self-proclaimed poet Marchbanks (Joseph Potter) throws Morell’s seemingly ordered life into disarray. When Marchbanks challenges Morell and declares he’s in love with Candida, his wife, the pair take it in turns to bruise each other’s egos and grown men turn into insecure little boys.
Miller’s direction is clear and energetic, but Morell and Marchbanks’s rhetorical punch-up – however ironically intended – sometimes feels endless. It’s Shaw at his most self-indulgent. Thankfully, Michael Simkins’s blustering Burgess, Candida’s father, and Sarah Middleton’s exasperated Proserpine, Morell’s secretary, bring the big laughs as they snipe at each other. As the younger Reverend Mills, Kwaku Mills is winningly baffled by it all.
Potter’s shrilly privileged Marchbanks will make you rue any dark day you wrote poetry and imagined it was profound. Shaw’s unravelling of Morell is more interesting. Played with exactly the right easy charm by Hutson, he’s a more immediately likeable character, equipped with the admirable principles he preaches.
But when Candida (Claire Lams) has had enough of being idolised or told that she needs protection, her brisk insights into their situation make it clear how much of Morell’s golden-boy goodness has been enabled by her, his mother and his sisters. He’s blind to his privilege. If he’s able to wave the flag of social justice, that’s because Candida has taken care of everything.
It’s an excellent point, but Shaw – in spite of dancing excitingly close, at one stage, to the prospect of an open relationship for Morell, Candida and Marchbanks – ultimately retrenches to Candida standing by her man. An enlightened status quo is still a status quo. And while Lams brilliantly sells some punch-in-the-air final scenes, Candida tends to exist more as counterpoint than character.