The Jean Cocteau Repertory’s programme for their witty, intelligent new production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida” quotes D.H. Lawrence as having written: “the cruelest thing a man can do to a woman is to portray her as perfection.”
It’s vaguely possible that Lawrence had Candida Burgess Morell in mind when he unfurled that opinion. Lawrence, who knew a good deal about the problems attendant to marriage, was 10 years old in 1895, when Shaw wrote the play, and almost 20 when it was first produced in 1904.
It’s fairly safe to assume however that the author of “Sons and Lovers” very probably encountered “Candida” somewhere along the way.
In creating the role of the wife of the Rev. James Morell, a clergyman in London’s teeming East End, Shaw came closer than he did in any other play to presenting his audience with a heroine without a single discernible blemish, except, just possibly, for a certain benign hint of smugness.
As one point, Candida reminds the headstrong young puppy of a lovesick poet, Eugene Marchbanks: “You are 20 and I am over 30.”
It’s a line to which generations of actresses, enchanted by the possibility of playing perfection, seem not to have paid much attention, with the result that productions in the middle decades of the last century often featured stars, Katherine Cornell and Olivia de Havilland, to name just two, considerably too mature for the role they’d undertaken.
The Candida of Michael Halberstam’s admirable staging at the Cocteau Rep, Amanda Jones, appears to be well within the age limits Shaw indicated, and, if anything, a touch younger than she says she is. She fills the role admirably.
The Rev. Morell, described by Shaw in an interview which he himself conducted, as “an altruist and a Socialist,” displays characteristics with which the playwright himself was surely both familiar and sympathetic.
There is of course, the good man’s politics, but there is also a certain unseemly innocence where the subtleties of the marital state are concerned.
The cleric has befriended, and made something of a personal project of, a young poet he found sleeping on the Thames embankment. He is Eugene Marchbanks, not a drifter, but actually a lad from a fairly “good” family, and not even down on his luck. He has, or Morell thinks he has, a bank draft in his possession when they meet.
The romantic, ultimately selfish would-be poet, a role played, surprisingly enough, by both Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift early in their careers, falls staggeringly in love with Morell’s wife.
One of the most interesting aspects of director Halberstam’s engaging production at the elegant old playhouse, sometimes known as the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, is that Candida, in her warmth and human responsiveness, appears to lead Marchbanks on a bit, and almost to encourage his infatuation with her.
This particular Candida is not exactly the flawless ice princess of all too many stagings. Morell, caught up in his humanistic preoccupations, has begun to take his loving wife just a little bit for granted. In an early scene, Halberstam has her resting her hand on the inside of Marchbanks’s left knee, and even stroking it just a bit.
It’s no wonder that the callow young man, beautifully realized by Danaher Dempsey, comes to believe that this “older woman” is smitten with him and might even be convinced to leave her husband and run off with him to share an extremely shaky future.
“Candida” is very much a romantic comedy, albeit a triangular one. Some productions falter if Morell is played like an insensitive husband out of a play by Henrik Ibsen.
But the Reverend, deftly rendered by David Tillistrand, comes over as a fully-dimensioned human being, in love with his wife, but perhaps too deeply involved in the social causes in which, perhaps only somewhat recently, he has invested so much of himself.
Morell is, in other words, in no sense the villain of the piece in this particular production.
“Candida” like “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and “Widowers’ Houses,” is among Shaw’s most underpopulated plays, like “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,’ currently being given a shining production at the Irish Rep, “Candida” has just six characters, at least one of which seems decidedly tossed off and underdeveloped.
Morell’s assistant, the canon known simply as Lexy, is one of the most poorly developed of all Shavian characters. Even when done as earnestly as it is here, in the person of Seth Duerr, the character seems to exist solely as a foil for Miss Pross, the virginal secretary who secretly loves her boss Morell.
As delivered here by Kate Holland, the long-suffering “Prossy” is a creature of starch and banked fires.
The remaining character, Burgess, played with hearty flair by Cocteau regular Angus Hepburn, is Candida’s crafty, manipulative father, a man so dubious that none is willing to shake his hand.
Burgess is also, almost too obviously, a rough sketch for Alfred Dolittle, the dustman father of Eliza Dolittle, the heroine of Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”
Far from being a lowly dustman the business-savvy Burgess is equally devious and even more cantankerous than his later invocation.
Hepburn, who would make an ideal Dolittle, makes a sparkling turn of every scene in which Burgess appears, more than matching Tillistrand’s Morell, thrust for thrust and parry for parry, in each of the scenes they share.
The scenic design by Brian Sidney Bembridge is a creature of warm woods around a glowing hearth, compromised only by an extremely peculiar painting over the fireplace.
The costumes provided by Sean Sullivan are entirely suitable to the occasion, particularly a fussy shirtfront for Marchbanks and an attractive reddish street outfit for Candida.
Because “Candida” is one of the most frequently produced of all of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, it doesn’t hold much in the way of surprises for most audiences.
In the most famous scene, Candida must choose between the solid, dependable reverend to whom she is married, and the self-obsessed colt who professes such urgent passion for her. The outcome, predictable from the outset, even manages to achieve a certain modicum of suspense in the Cocteau’s staging because of its honesty and, equally, because of its admirable fidelity to the Dublin-born Shaw.