Candida, Playhouse, Oxford

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The Independent Culture

Christopher Luscombe's engaging, handsomely designed production celebrates the 100th anniversary of the first staging of Candida, the play that George Bernard Shaw offered as "a counterblast to Ibsen's Doll's House, showing that in the real typical doll's house it is the man who is the doll".

Christopher Luscombe's engaging, handsomely designed production celebrates the 100th anniversary of the first staging of Candida, the play that George Bernard Shaw offered as "a counterblast to Ibsen's Doll's House, showing that in the real typical doll's house it is the man who is the doll". A door does indeed slam shut at the end of this drama, but the exit is made here not by a newly emancipated heroine, but by the rejected youth who has offered Candida a wild alternative of sorts to the thankless life of being the domestic, emotional, and moral support of her spouse, the Rev James Morell, a Christian Socialist vicar in a north-east London parish.

Shaw's dramatisation of the balance of power in this marriage has not dated. Indeed, it kept reminding me of A Bed Among the Lentils, the splendid Alan Bennett monologue with Maggie Smith. There's the same sense of how easy it is for a man of the cloth blithely to accept the role of pampered favourite of his female-parishioner fan club (Hattie Ladbury gives a ruefully witty performance here as the vicar's typist, Proserpine Garnett, a forthright and feisty young lady whose heart-stricken devotion to her boss goes completely unnoticed). And there's a similar insight into how a cosseted cleric can come to take for granted the self-sacrifices of his wife that allow him to become a star speaker against the evils of social oppression further from home. With his donnish, humane demeanour and his air of insulated, slightly complacent self-belief, Andrew Havill's excellent Morell shows you a fundamentally decent man, deeply in love with his wife but deludedly believing that he is her tower of strength. In a calculated inversion of the dramatic norm, it's his needy weakness that makes Candida choose him over his rival.

The third figure in the love-triangle is the 18-year-old aristocratic poet, Eugene Marchbanks, whom Morell rescues from sleeping rough on the Embankment. Though his outfit of straw boater, powder-blue jacket and wing-collar makes him look like Little Lord Fauntleroy evolving, with unseemly haste, into Lord Alfred Douglas, Richard Glaves has a brave stab at this impossible role. It's just hard to square the petulantly impetuous, effeminate, tantrum-throwing figure that Shaw's stage directions stipulate with the young Shelleyan poet-idealist whose moral intelligence is supposed to have produced a devastating X-ray on the state of the Morell marriage. It's a nice comic touch, though, that when Eugene reads her his verses in the firelight, Candida's attention keeps wandering. His lyric effusions are about as gratifying to her ears as her husband's old sermons. In an understatedly sharp performance, Serena Evans portrays her as a shrewdly appraising, but prosaic soul, stoically aware that whoever makes the stronger appeal to her maternal instincts will win.

Whereas in A Doll's House, the children are both a physical presence and a preoccupation, they are absentee players in Candida. It's perhaps a mistake, therefore, to have a scattering of toys on the set here, for it alerts you to the fact that they are scarcely mentioned.

Lighthouse, Poole (01202 685 222) 6 to 10 July; Richmond Theatre (020-8940 0088) 20 to 24 July; Theatre Royal, York (01904 623 568) 27 to 31 July

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