Although written in 1893, George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession wasn’t publically performed until 1925, “when members of English society could no longer pretend that their world was the epitome of true respectability and elegance.” And while this might, perhaps, seem strange to a modern audience, in the 1890s Shaw’s famously strong socialist opinions were deemed unsuitable for polite society. Originally classified as an ‘Unpleasant Play’ by Shaw himself, it could be read – seen, even – as a study of prostitution, and its aim “to shew the prostitution is not the prostitute’s fault but the fault of a society,” as Shaw wrote to a colleague. Yet, Mrs Warren’s Profession is “no more a work “about” prostitution as a social crime than [Ibsen’s] Ghosts is “about” syphilis as a communicable disease.”
After their misconceived Pygmalion in 2012, I was at first wary of the Sydney Theatre Company’s choice to produce another of Shaw’s plays. Very much like Oscar Wilde (and Tom Stoppard on an good day), Shaw’s writing is filled to the brim with dialogue and scenes which positively sparkle with the fire of intelligence, wit and a playful subversiveness; whereas 2012’s Pygmalion found it early only to lose it in the Sydney Theatre’s emptiness, Mrs Warren’s Profession had it from the start, kept it and let it grow until its conclusion, two-and-a-half hours later. It’s to director Sarah Giles’ credit that this production brings out the tensions apparent in Shaw’s play, the core distinctions between mother and daughter, young and old, male and female, father and son; wealth and poverty, virgin and whore, independence and dependence, morality and depravity, marriage and a career. By re-examining these oppositions anew Giles, along with her cast and team, has created a fresh, vibrant and I’m almost tempted to call it a modern interpretation of one of the English language’s greatest dramatist’s early works.
The set (by Renée Mulder) was dominated by a pink flower-studded hedge-like curtain, stretches across the width of the Wharf 1 stage, and is in many respects vaginal – it has an enveloping, almost claustrophobic feel to it, as if the women – and, perhaps, men – are trapped within it; in many respects, I guess that’s almost what Shaw is getting at throughout the play. It is this entrapment, this feeling of constriction that led Giles to set her production in the Shavian period, complete with corsets and bustles and long dresses. “It’s about restriction – for men and women,” Giles says. “Corsets and bustles do something to you.” Add to this a subtle and cleverly used revolve and sparse furniture enough to suggest locations – folding chairs, benches, and a hammock for the garden, a table and chairs for a study, a large desk for the office – and you have a beautiful and elegant set which does not detract but rather adds to the power of the play’s central argument about the double standards which exist for men and women, still all too prevalent today, one-hundred-and-twenty years later.
Giles’ cast were all terrific: Lizzie Schebesta as Vivie was equally as passionate, worldly and naïve as she needed to be, every bit as determined and iron-willed as her mother, the titular Mrs Warren. As Mrs ‘Kitty’ Warren, Helen Thompson had the bearing and the height necessary to make her a formidable woman, yet when she was at her most vulnerable – in her private scenes with Vivie – you saw underneath it a woman who was scared of losing everything, a woman determined to escape the world she grew up in. Thompson’s voice, too, changed depending on who she was talking to or what she was talking about: when she was in the company of others, society if you will, her speech was that as befitted her status, but when she was alone with Vivie, in their confrontations, her voice became that the woman she once was, her ‘real’ voice if you will. Eamon Farren as Frank was a cheeky, nimble, largely good-natured young man, a kind of cross between Eddie Redmayne and David Tennant, equal parts charming, serious and playful, yet never outstaying his welcome. Simon Burke as Praed, an old friend of Mrs Warren’s, was necessarily naïve in his outlook, concerned largely with the architecture and the façade of aesthetic beauty than with whatever implications may come from it or be hidden by it; yet his character was no less credible or less believable for him being thus. Drew Forsythe as the Reverend was delightfully bumbling and, though a small role, carried his character with aplomb and dignity (though I couldn’t help but think of his many varied roles in the Wharf Revues at times), while Martin Jacobs as George Crofts, Mrs Warren’s business partner, was suitably boorish and beastly, a rather obnoxious, uncouth and lecherous man with no tact or finesse. His scene in Act Three with Vivie was deliciously awkward and rather ghastly, a portrayal only compounded by his character’s motives and words, his mannerisms and development.
None of the actors felt intrinsically separate from their characters – so far as I was concerned, within the reality of the play, the actors were the characters; and I suppose that’s also partly due to Shaw’s writing as much as Giles’ direction – he “peopled the play with recognisable stereotypes, and turned them inside out – mother, daughter, young lover, father, clergyman; even the [villainous] Sir George Crofts. And he pursued his political argument via a deconstruction of perhaps the most popular dramatic form in English, the romantic comedy.” Shaw carries this inversion of the normal across into his narrative, particularly at the end of Act Two. Following Mrs Warren’s disclosure of her ‘sordid past’ to her daughter, the conventional melodramatic practice would have been to mark this point as the end of the “young heroine’s ordeal; in Shaw’s play it is only the beginning.” In the following Act, in what are essentially two paired scenes, we are shown [just two of] the various kinds of relationships which can exist and which are presented to Vivie to choose from – the ‘holiday romance’ love she has with Frank, and the unctuous and skin-crawlingly spiteful kind of love to be gotten from Crofts. In the final act, Shaw gives Vivie a moment in which she makes her stance on love and relationships blatantly, painfully, clear: “If we three are to remain friends,” she tells Frank and Praed respectively, “I must be treated as a woman of business, permanently single and permanently unromantic.” She then regards her mother as a threat to her self-determination and conviction, not because of anything ‘immoral’ she finds within her, but because she sees in her mother her own self, her own independent spirit. Vivie realises that marriage, in whatever form and however romantic, “simply makes the woman “licensed to be loved on the premises” – no different from the girls who work in her mother’s brothels.”
In the final moments of the play, as the stage plunges into a thick darkness, only Vivie remains, sitting at her accountant’s desk, “delving into the great sheafs of paper [in] order to lose herself in her work.” It’s a perfectly bleak and exhilarating moment, not least because of the visual image of the desk slowly turning on the revolve, the arced lamplight yellow and contained within the space. And yet it is perfectly and sublimely Chekhovian in its resoluteness, its ingrained display of inner strength and resolve, the “contrariness of its signals: despair and contentment, disillusionment and hope for the future.” As in many of Shaw’s later works, the events in this early play become moments in a kind of spiritual education – “a cumulative process of disillusionment that leaves its subject decimated but stronger and more resilient, better able to bear life without illusion,” as Frederick J. Marker writes. The drama in Mrs Warren’s Profession, as in Chekhov, “lies in the discovery and its consequences. [But these] consequences are cruel enough, are all quite sensible and sober”, unlike in Chekhov’s work, so there are “no suicides nor sensational tragedies of any sort.”
In a play that was written for women, to be performed and produced by women, about women and the defence of their rights (just as with Pygmalion), it is remarkable for it to have been written by a man, albeit someone of Shaw’s calibre and standing. And while Sarah Giles describes Shaw as being a “feminist, [yet] still a product of his time,” perhaps we today can look at Shaw’s play and find the “timeliness and the power [in] the lesson the play teaches.” Perhaps, like Vivie, we can gain our education.
Theatre playlist: 6. Reflection,