George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Simon Godwin
Theatre Royal, Bath
11 July 2013
Candida (Charity Wakefield) with Eugene (Frank Dillane)
As an author, you have to admire George Bernard Shaw’s role in founding The Society of Authors. The Great Man’s bust sits in the meeting room of the Society, and I’ve benefitted from his fierce stare at publisher’s representatives on the other side of the table. The Society administers his estate, so every production is a bonus. I truly WANT to like Shaw plays.
But … we bought tickets for this production of Candida solely to see David Troughton. For the third time this year, a major role was replaced by an understudy. Troughton’s role was to be Mr Burgess, father of Candida, a character part, rather than one of the three lead roles. Troughton was replaced, and given foreknowledge of his absence, we would rather have binned the tickets at £27.50 each rather than drive two hours each way and sit through it. Others who attended in our row didn’t survive the interval.
Canada has a Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake which boasts “800 performances in a year” of Shaw and “Shavian dramatists” whatever they may be. It’s a beautiful town, I once spent a week there, but spare me ever having to sit through any more Shaw. Candida was a popular and frequently-performed play for several decades, but is rarely seen nowadays. It is too worthy and wordy for my taste.
Candida tells the tale of the Reverend James Morell, his wife Candida (was a yeast infection named after her, or vice versa?) and the 18 year old poet Eugene Marchbanks who falls in love with Candida, and very wordily debates his love for her with her husband. Candida has been away and returns with the poet it tow. The poet, Eugene, states his love for Candida. Candida tells her husband that she hopes Eugene will be introduced to love (we assume she means sex) by a “good woman” not a “bad woman” which sends his jealousy antennae twitching. The Reverend goes out for the evening (to give another worthy lecture) taking everyone else … his curate, her father (Mr Burgess) and his feisty secretary. It’s a test for her love for him: they have been given opportunity to be alone in the house for several hours. He returns and they’re sitting by the fireplace on the rug, not that anything has actually transpired, but it looks pretty intimate. Candida is forced to choose between them, a strong woman choosing between two weak men. The little twist is that while her husband orates and lectures, the poet reads poetry aloud. She just wants to “talk” as in have a two-way conversation rather than listen. A good point on gender politics that still holds.
The play is interesting biographically, as Shaw has written both of the swains as himself. Morell is a “windbag” Socialist orator (much like Shaw), while Eugene is the aesthete poet trying to seduce married women (much like Shaw). Seduce? No. to “declaim his love for.” Frank Harris is quoted in the (excellent) programme notes, saying that Shaw was “the first man to have cut a swathe through the theatre and left it strewn with virgins.” On the plus side, Shaw was poking fun at himself in both roles.
The problem is that the play creaks with age. Following the minor Noel Coward “Relative Values” you wonder what Bath’s aim was with this season. The audience is often elderly, but at even 20 years older than us, you’d think the 1950s and 1960s might appeal more than the 1890s. It may have been groundbreaking and challenging in 1894, but it lacks the wit or natural stageability of Oscar Wilde, and is polemic and wordy … a tale told by a windbag full of sound and fury and signifying very little. I don’t think the play works today. It was dull, mercifully short, and while not as poor as the awful “Peter & Alice” it’s definitely among the weakest plays we have seen this last year. The impetus to produce this sort of play is that “costume, preferably 1880-1950, sells tickets.” We can shift the period and costume with Shakespeare and 17th and 18th century plays with wild abandon. Once we get to Wilde, productions almost always stick to the year the play was set in. I’ve seen Wilde stretched to the 1920s, but no further. We have a pretty detailed picture of what people looked like at any time from the mid-19th century invention of photography, and plays don’t shift it much. I passed some of the duller bits wondering if it could have been re-costumed to 1967 or 2013, ignoring, as with Shakespeare, the fact that the words were from a different era. Hard to do, was my conclusion, and the bones of the play weren’t worth the effort.
Shaw’s incredibly detailed stage directions in the original text are now amusing, describing the surrounding area of the house in absurd detail, given that we won’t see any of it:
Near the outer end of the Hackney Road is a park of 217 acres, fenced in, not by railings, but by a wooden paling, containing plenty of greensward, trees, lakes for bathers, flower beds which are triumphs of the admired cockney art of carpet gardening, and a sandpit, originally imported from the seaside for the delight of children …
This park never appears in the play except for Eugene saying he thinks he might walk in the park. The Method would call these detailed notes “backstory.” Most of us would call them OCD.
Jamie Parker as Reverend James Morell, Charity Wakefield as Candida.
The understudy, Christopher Godwin, was very good and the funniest in the play, though stereotypical, as Candida’s capitalist exploitative father. We thought Troughton might have added originality to the interpretation. Maybe, maybe not. The Bristol review of the first night mentions that Godwin had little notice and was holding the script on the Monday. With two more performances under his belt, and no script, you would never guess he had not been cast from the outset. We both singled out Jo Herbert as Miss Garnett, the typist or as we’d now say, PA to the Reverend Morell, as excellent.
The Reverend & The Poet
The relationship with an audience is a point of interest to me. At one point the belligerent Reverend, a muscular Christian if ever there was one, has to threaten the wimpy poet with fisticuffs, saying “I’m bigger than you.” Problem. The line is delivered standing. The Reverend here is several inches shorter than the poet. So what do you do? I’d step outside the play and raise my eyebrows at the audience for a laugh, sorry, very Eric Morcambe, but I couldn’t resist it. Or you could go farcical, still point it, and leap on a chair or stand on tiptoe. Or you could, and really should, stay in character and just change the text from “bigger” to “stronger” which he manifestly is. Simple. Even Shaw wouldn’t have noticed if he’d been looking down on it. What did they do? None of the above.
The set, like a mirror of reality with everything at an angle, including tables and chairs, was the star.
We came out for the second time in a fortnight, saying “Why did they bother to revive this play?” The applause was polite, by no means ecstatic at the end. They quote The Times:
“A riot … amid gales of laughter the cast plays every absurdity with relish”
Really? Definitely NOT on Thursday 11th July. A few titters at most. I’m being generous. None came from me. The fault is all GBS’s. All the actors were good.
Two mediocre plays in a row in the 2013 Bath Summer season … so we’ll definitely not rush to buy tickets for the 2014 Bath summer season. Unless it looks up considerably with the next two.