(May 14, 2011) We think we’ve seen a different, more robust approach to the Shaw plays offered at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) over the last decade. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy the Shaw plays we saw there during the 1990s – but they seemed to draw a little too deeply from a performing tradition of British constraint, formality, and artifice that kept Shaw’s natural vigor from coming through. We’ve had the same sense watching videos of buttoned-down BBC productions of Shaw plays filmed in the early 1970s.
In recent seasons the Shaw plays have seemed livelier, fresher, and more spontaneous, and the characters have seemed decidedly more human. The result has been that in many seasons the must-see show at the Shaw Festival has, in fact, been a Shaw play (like last year’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, 2008’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, 2006’s Arms and the Man, and 2004’s Man and Superman), as is befitting. We can only speculate that a new generation of directors at the Shaw Festival gets the point that Shaw intended his characters to portray real flesh-and-blood men and women, not drawing-room caricatures.
Despite this salutary trend, this year’s Candida, which we saw last weekend, seemed to us a bit of a throwback to the older approach. We can’t help thinking that the production missed director Gina Wilkinson, who was originally announced as director of Candida but who sadly passed away in December 2010.
But Candida is still one of Shaw’s most entertaining comedies, and this show has some delightful comic acting, including a warm, nuanced performance from Claire Jullien as Candida. We especially enjoyed Krista Colosimo as Miss Proserpine, the old-maid secretary with a crush on her boss, a character that Ms. Colosimo artfully portrays as neither ridiculous or pitiable. And we were impressed with Wade Bogert-O’Brien (a lively and appealing Eugene Marchbanks), a young actor who seems to take to Shaw like a duck to water. The scenes move briskly along; for a Shaw play, this one’s relatively short.
The Shaw Festival’s advertising of Candida has, we think, been a little misleading. There’s no bona fide love triangle at all. Candida is not truly torn between her busy-as-a-bee do-gooder parson husband and the adoring young romantic who appreciates her true worth – and we were relieved to see that Ms. Jullien, as Candida, didn’t try to play it that way. Marchbanks, young and naïve, may have thought he was making a serious run for Candida’s affections; no doubt Morrell himself had a crisis of marital insecurity. But Candida herself never wavered from our commitment to her husband, despite his flaws; this is a love story.
The most notable thing about this year’s Candida is that a black actor, Nigel Shawn Williams, has been cast as Morrell. Wholly apart from Mr. Williams’s performance, which seemed to us respectable though not notable, we are not enthusiastic about this gesture in color-blind casting.
In this post a couple of years ago, we took exception to a public campaign to pressure the Shaw Festival to become more “diverse.” (Of course, diversity flacks never mean real diversity at all, but only diversity in skin color, which is the least interesting and most meaningless of human differences.) We kept hearing the mantra that Ontario’s theaters should be “as diverse as Canada itself.”
But so what if southern Ontario (and western New York) are racially and ethnically diverse? The world of Bernard Shaw wasn’t! And in his plays Shaw showed little or no interest in racial differences. (Are there any characters of color in Shaw besides the Egyptian doctor in The Millionairess?) Shaw’s genius lay instead in sketching the genteel classes, the upstart capitalist classes, the varieties of socialists (Morrell’s Christian socialism, for example, as contrasted with Shaw’s secular socialism), the working classes, and the idle educated classes.
We might well be asked whether theatergoers shouldn’t simply teach themselves to ignore skin color, even in Shaw plays. It’s a fair question, because going to the theater requires one to suppose a lot of things that aren’t so. We’re able to suspend disbelief long enough to accept that a wooden stage is really the parlor of a radical London clergyman, or that people we’re seen walking the streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake are really Londoners named Candida, Lexy, and Miss Proserpine. It’s all part of watching a play.
But the stage is one of the few arenas of life where appearance does matter. We rightly expect, for instance, that stage actors will be age-appropriate and gender-appropriate for their parts. Candida, however, is set in London at the end of the 19th century, a time and place when a marriage between a white woman and a black vicar would have been unthinkable.
Thus, when a black man is cast as Morrell and a white woman is cast as Morrell’s wife, we must not only imagine that the actor is a socialist vicar in a lower-class London parish, but must imagine as well that the black actor is actually white. Casting a black man as Morrell (or casting a black woman as Candida), with an otherwise white cast, lays an additional, unnecessary demand on an audience.
We pride ourselves on our imaginative powers and our mental flexibility, and we don’t want to suggest that this experiment in color-blind casting at the Shaw Festival kept us from enjoying the play or from appreciating Mr. Williams’s performance. But we are unconvinced that the experiment was a good idea. We would have rather seen an all-black cast, which would have avoided the issue altogether. The Shaw Festival’s ensemble doesn’t have many black actors, but Candida has only six characters. It could have been done.