BBC Radio 7, 8 February 2009
Ronald Mason's vintage production from the mid-1980s treated Shaw's play
as a comedy of manners, demonstrating how the male protagonists Morrell (Edward Petherbridge) and Marchbanks (Christopher
Guard) construct idealized images of Candida (Hannah Gordon) and discover to their cost that such images are nothing more
than fantasies. Morrell, a champagne socialist if ever there was one, conceives himself as a champion of 'the people,' giving
speeches from the pulpit that exhort them to rise up and rebel against the system. He remains supremely confident of his own
ability to inspire others, and maintain a family environment that serves as an example to his parishioners. In Morrell's moral
scheme (pun intended) Candida represents the perfect wife, responsible for domestic affairs while at the same time offering
unquestioning support to her husband's cause. So long as she makes approving noises, then Morrell's vanity can be satisfied.
Petherbridge turned him into an oleaginous bore, oozing complacency as he spoke Shaw's lines in a patronizing manner, as if
expecting everyone to listen to him.
If Morrell is the campaigner, Marchbanks is a romantic, preoccupied with
the power of poetry to inspire finer feelngs. Although only eighteen, he creates the kind of word-portraits guaranteed
to melt the toughest heart - even Candida's. While obviously naive - almost reckless - in his pursuit of a
married woman, Marchbanks at least makes her feel special.
The central conflict of this revival was especially exciting as the two men argued
with one another as to which was the most 'suitable' for Candida's affections. The depth of their obsession was breathtaking;
like Ben Jonson's 'humours' created nearly 250 years before Shaw's play, both Morrell and Marchbanks were imprisoned
by their beliefs, unable (or unwilling) to reach a compromise. Even when Morrell threatened to beat the living daylights
out of the younger man, it made no real difference. At length Candida made her choice between the two; like a good Victorian
wife, she preferred to stay with her husband, not because she liked him any more than Marchbanks, but because she fulfilled
so many roles for Morrell - as a wife, mother, helpmate, counsellor and friend. Morrell liked to play one part - that of a
devoted church member - but Candida played several parts, each one guaranteeing stability both at home and at work. As portrayed
by Hannah Gordon, she remained a pragmatic personality - one who enjoyed her romantic interlude, but preferred to assert her
authority as mistress of the house.
Like several Shavian works, Candida punctures the pretensions underlying
society's so-called 'opinion-formers' (in this case, Morrell). Show shows that he is nothing more than a bag of wind, giving
himself authoritative airs but totally bereft of intellectual depth. Candida can twist him round her little finger; maybe
she should be the political decision-maker instead. While this radical view of politics might have seemed striking in the
late Victorian era; in Mason's mid-1980s revival it seemed like an endorsement of Thatcherism, where men
could be successfully kept on a political (or emotional) leash.