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Candida
Published on Saturday, 25 August 2012
2

2 stars

Assembly George Square (venue website)
Theatre
1-12, 14-27 Aug, 11:40am-12:55pm
Reviewed by Brianne Moore

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

Candida, by George Bernard Shaw, is not a play that's performed very often. After seeing it, I could understand why: it is a fairly weak play, and this is a rather weak production of it.

The heart of the story is a tug-of-war over the titular Candida, a hardworking but affectionate wife, by James (her clergyman husband) and Eugene (a teenage poet who worships her). Eugene doesn't seem to care that Candida treats him like an amusing child and clearly has a close and loving relationship with her husband; but James is, for some reason that's never really explained, just insecure enough to be rattled by the young man's declaration of love and insistence that Candida must be bored by her humdrum, middle-class life.

As James, Michael Kopko does an admirable job, holding his own in debates with Eugene without going over the top into bombastic acting. Similarly, Lynne Bolton as Candida is likeable and seems bemused by the whole situation – which makes sense, because it's all completely absurd. Todd Bartels as Eugene, however, is so grating and childish, so given to ridiculous histrionics, that he was difficult to watch. He seemed more like an emotionally disturbed eight-year-old manifesting a strong Oedipal complex than an idealistic young man experiencing first love and having his eyes opened to relationship realities. He is, in a sense, written that way, but Bartels could have reined in the acting just a bit without us missing the point that Eugene is a man of poetry and ideas, not reality.

It's hard to imagine why anyone would have put up with Eugene for any length of time – surely any sensible person would have thrown him out of the house long ago, or suggested he get help after he collapses in hysterics over the idea of his lady-love chopping onions? And here's a major problem with this play: it's all building up to Candida having to make a big decision over who she's going to go with, her husband or Eugene. But this is no decision at all. No sensible, mature woman in a loving relationship would go off with this childish idealist, with no sense of reality. Pedestals may seem lovely, but the fall from them is long and hard, and surely Candida knows that.

So the play ultimately lacks any tension. We know what her decision is going to be, because it's the only decision she could realistically make. Essentially, we're left watching characters debate subjects like love; all well and good if you have two good characters making good points, but here Eugene was so overplayed it was difficult to set irritation aside long enough to focus on what he was saying.

Eugene wasn't the only weak spot; the whole production lacked a little polish. Accents were sloppy (the theatre company hails from the United States) and many of the actors stumbled over their words throughout the play, as if they weren't confident in their lines. Some of the actors seemed a little awkward, not quite comfortable in their roles or with what they were doing. Will Jeffries as Burgess, Candida's father (one of three fairly superfluous characters, though that's Shaw's fault, not the production company's) flapped his hands and arms distractingly, as if he wasn't sure what to do with himself. And a few times, certain words were overemphasized, as if they didn't trust the audience to catch them – which ruined any comic potential those words might have had.

There were a few interesting things being commented on here, particularly the position of women at the time the play was written (the late Victorian period) and the furthering of the rather radical notion that ladies should have a say in their lives. But more than once, I got the distinct feeling I was watching a school play: earnest, but not very well executed. Some of the players showed promise, but most of the acting was marred by its excesses, undermining whatever impact Shaw's message could have had.

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