Candida - Jamie Parker (Reverend Morell), Charity Wakefield (Candida) - Photo credit Nobby Clark - (ref222)

Written in 1894, George Bernard Shaw’s Candida is a play deeply rooted in its time, making it tough to stage a production that is palatable to a modern audience, dealing as it does with the relationships between men and women. In Simon Godwin’s robust production, though, the women of the play have enough energy and bite to cut through some – but not all – of the sentimentality that Shaw ladles on, particularly at the end.

The eponymous Candida (a radiant Charity Wakefield) is forced, through a series of rather contrived plot devices and the idiocy of the respective men, to choose between her husband and an 18-year-old poet of their acquaintance. Jamie Parker blusters well as the Reverend James Morell, Candida’s preacher husband who spends more of his life out spreading the word and his socialist ideas than he does paying attention to his wife. Frank Dillane plays the foppish, Keatsian Eugene Marchbanks – the son of a peer whose poetry is intended to woo Candida’s soul. Dillane is entertaining enough, but the character is hard to empathise with – he’s both pompous and pathetic. One can’t help but feel that the production would be more interesting if each man really had something to offer Candia; as it stands, it’s hard to believe that she will ever choose anyone but her husband, despite his rather unimpressive offer to her – for all of his high-minded ideals, he offers Candida his own financial stability and respected position as his greatest assets.

Shaw’s script becomes problematic when Candida is forced to choose between the two men and the Victorian ideas about marriage, and men and women, come to the fore. Candida’s reasons for choosing her husband he is the weaker of the two men (i.e. the one who needs her more), and that she is wife, mother and sister to him – a syrupy, idealised Victorian version of marital love that feels rather uncomfortable today. Marchbanks can offer only his poetic adoration of her spirit, which she will never live up to. He is happier, in a way, to be miserable and worship from afar than he would be if he were to “win” Candida for himself.

Wakefield cuts through a lot of the schmaltz in explaining her decision, but the “angel of the hearth” image is never far away, and the infantalising of her husband rather sticks in the craw. More interesting, from a modern point of view, is Miss Garnett, James’s secretary. Jo Herbert plays a tightly-wound Miss Garnett, a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind but is full of contained passion – and is all the more likeable for it. Her impatience with both the philosophising of Marchbanks and the arrogance of Candida’s father (a likeable Christopher Godwin) is hugely enjoyable to watch.

Beautifully designed and lit (by Mike Britton and Oliver Fenwick, respectively), Candida is a solid production, but one that never quite flies. Godwin’s direction is deft, particularly of the female characters, but the play itself feels dated. It’s like watching a curiorisity rather than a piece of drama worth performing for its own sake.

Candida is at Theatre Royal Bath until 20 July. For more information and tickets visit the Theatre Royal’s website.

Photo (c) Nobby Clark.