Bernard Shaw’s Candida at the Shaw Festival

(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.

Candida's father Burgess (Norman Browning) bullies Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). Doesn't this photo (courtesy of the Shaw Festival) remind you of an illustration out of a novel by Dickens or Thackeray?

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.

Marchbanks (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) hectors Candida's husband Morrell (Nigel Shawn Williams)

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.

Candida (Clair Juillien) was never really tempted to leave her husband (Nigel Shawn Williams)

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.

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I haven’t been able to see the current Much Ado at the Globe in London yet, but I understand that both Hero and her father are played by Black actors. This is a departure from the “colour-blind casting” I’ve seen in Shakespeare, where Black actors play characters whose blood relatives are played by White actors. I think it’s a pity to move away from that (unless it’s just by chance).

  2. Dave, I appreciate your thoughts. Hope you enjoy T. H. White — and hope I manage to get to see Camelot myself this year.

    Yes, I certainly agree that aesthetic preferences are highly subjective. No doubt there have plenty of other theater-goers who haven’t found Williams’s visual appearance in a Victorian drawing room comedy incongruous. I certainly don’t set out to lay down any “rules”, though I do think that in stagecraft it’s elementary that actors should if possible look their parts. But I didn’t really put any effort at all, as you suggest, into making myself believe that McKenna was Richard. She (and her makeup/wardrobe people) did all the work. She really looked like a man. And given Richard’s deformity, a slight-figured Richard wasn’t much of a stretch. By contrast, in Candida, Williams acted the part of a Victorian parson in every way possible, but of course he didn’t look like one.

    Truly, the quality of McKenna’s performance had nothing to do with it. I refer to you to my comments on a production of Richard III that we saw LAST summer that starred John Douglas Thompson as Richard. See https://emsworth.wordpress.com/2010/09/09/richard-iii-at-shakespeare-and-company-in-lenox-mass/. Mr. Thompson was superb (and frankly, the production as a whole was even more satisfying than the one in Stratford this year), and his personal appearance (he’s a tall, well-built black man) was a non-factor. I must say that, in general, I don’t find color-blind casting to be a distraction in Shakespeare, and I doubt if many other people do either. I think one big reason is that Shakespeare’s world is so far removed from ours that we have fewer preconceptions of what Shakesperean people should look look. Shaw’s world, on the other hand, is very near to ours, and we know exactly what his people and their surroundings looked like (among other things, we have photographs!).

    I objected to the aspersions in the comments of Anonymous because I think his implication was that I was racist, which was both untrue and offensive. I really don’t mind it when people simply disagree with me.

    Regards, Emsworth

  3. Political correctness notwithstanding, you claim that because Williams did not transport you to a place of believeability that ‘diversity’ is of little use not just in Candida but in and of itself. If McKenna were not the stellar performer and put in only a ‘respectable though not notable’ shift, would you then have said that it is too much to ask an audience to accept that a woman can play a kings role?

    Preference in art is pretty much all in our heads….You seem to make quite a bit of effort to suppress your perception that McKenna’s height, voice and slender frame are not quite a fit for her role. If you can’t/won’t do the same for Williams that’s fine. But why transform your own personal preferences into a steadfast rule for everyone else. And please don’t put out strong opinions and then whine that you’re being ‘attacked’ You not being attacked. You’re being criticized, and not unjustly. If you have the guts to make strong personal statements then take responsibility for them and defend with reason.

    All that aside, I appreciate your views and reviews on this site. I probably won’t be goint to see Candida, but I’ll probably pick up a copy of Once and Fututre King before I go see Camelot later this summer.

    Dave from Ontario

  4. Charlene: I agree entirely. I hate it, for instance, when, in plays in which there’s a significant role for a teenager, they cast an actual teenager who isn’t up to the role. I’d much rather have them cast an older actor who can cut the part, and use my imagination.

    Anonymous: Reveals more about me . . . . ? Nonsense. It’s unfortunate that a person can’t even express mild reservations about a particular instance of color-blind casting without being attacked by someone.

    I would have thought the distinction was obvious. Ms. McKenna’s casting in Richard III wasn’t a distraction because she looked like a man. Mr. Williams’s casting as Morrell in Candida was (at least somewhat) distracting because he did NOT look like the 1895 English parson, public figure, and husband that he was playing.

    MK: It’s just not realistic to suggest that appearance doesn’t matter on the stage. Of course it does. And I’m hardly fixated on appearance; story-telling and good acting are the main thing, and I’ve often complained on this blog about shows in which story-telling has been subordinated to distracting visual imagery. I wouldn’t have raised the issue of appearance in connection with Candida if I hadn’t felt that appearance WAS distracting from the story. I do agree that, after a bit, a good actor like Mr. Williams is likely to push to the side of one’s consciousness the fact that he doesn’t look the part. I remember, for instance, seeing Brian Bedford, well into his sixties, effectively playing a character less than half his age in Private Lives. But it’s still a distraction.

    I do appreciate the problem about tons of roles for white males and not enough roles for everybody else. All I can say is that theater is put on audiences, not for the actors.

  5. I suppose we should object to North Americans being cast as Brits.

  6. Why is having a black male in Candida a distraction but having a woman as Richard III isn’t? This blog reveals more about you than it does about blind casting.

  7. “We rightly expect, for instance, that stage actors will be age-appropriate and gender-appropriate for their parts.” Except when one is compromising the play by hiring and actor who may look the part, but where acting is concerned, cannot pull their weight. I would much rather see any actor more than capable of playing a role, than one who looks like they should, but can’t.

  8. I challenge the idea that appearance matters on the stage. In the hands of a great actor age, gender, skin colour doesn’t matter 5 minutes into the show. And why should the great actor be limited by age, skin colour or gender? Non-traditional casting came about because there are tons of roles written for white males and not nearly enough for everyone else of talent. Why do you need to fixate on appearance instead of story?

  9. I think the most interesting issue is “but must imagine as well that the black actor is actually white.” Did you not find that when no characters mentioned Morrell’s race you just forgot about it?In what circumstances does a black actor necessarily represent a black character? I guess Shaw was writing about social issues so audiances may be expected to bring their knowledge of 1895 London from outside the play to bear. If it were Ibsen (apart from Peer Gynt) we’d just know he couldn’t be black so take him as white. If it were Wilde we could either take him as white or assume that Wilde’s imaginary aristocracy is colour-blind. I think if you thought of Morrell as black all through the actor has failed.

  10. John:

    I’d say that “unusual and arousing a lot of hostility” isn’t much different from “unthinkable.” Morrell couldn’t really have been a black vicar without the “mixed marriage” thing becoming a focus of the play. I’d be very surprised if a historian could give an example of any black Londoner married to a white woman around 1895 who enjoyed the popularity and acceptance that Morrell’s character did.

    I grant you that color-blind casting is much less of an issue if race isn’t an issue in a play. Still, my point is that, given the social class system of 1895, a “mixed marriage” WOULD necessarily have been an issue, because race had unavoidable class implications. Today we don’t think anything of it when we meet couples of different races, but folks certainly would have thought a lot about it in 1895.

    Yes — in fact I actually have a copy of a BBC production of “Apple Cart” on DVD — the case says it was done in 1972. But “Apple Cart” isn’t set necessarily in 1930 (when Shaw wrote it) or in any other time period. The BBC production set it in the 1970s or possibly at some vague future time period (I seem to remember a helicopter delivering one of the characters to 10 Downing Street).

  11. “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.”
    I don’t think so. Unusual, and arousing a lot of hostility, but not unknown. Unthinkable in the British colonies, probably, but not in the metropolis.
    As fpr not thinking about actor’s race if it’s not an issue in the play, I don’t think that’s a problem in a period play. Incidentally, I believe it was in the 1950’s that the BBC, then the only British TV channel, put on Shaw’s “the Apple Cart” with a Black actress as the Queen.


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