The Shaw Festival Triumphs with Bernard Shaw’s once notorious Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Reviewed by Jamie Portman
May 20, 2016 Friday at 10:18 am
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Written by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Edna Holmes
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — It’s an explosive mother-daughter confrontation — and it’s a lulu.
It happens near the end of the Shaw Festival’s marvellous revival of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw’s once-banned play about the economic benefits of brothel-keeping. On the one hand, you have feisty young Vivie Warren (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) coming to terms with the knowledge that she owes her university education and her place in society to her mother’s illicit earnings. In the other corner, there’s Mrs. Warren (Nicole Underhay) defiant in the face of her daughter’s scorn and scarcely able to comprehend that she’s about to be shown the door by her ungrateful child.
It’s a moment of high drama in an outstanding production that shows how pertinent many of the issues raised by this late Victorian play remain today. Director Eda Holmes underlines its continuing relevance through an audacious device. At the beginning we’re in the kind of private men’s club that still exists in today’s London and is notorious for resisting change. The four males we encounter are clearly of the present — there may be an ancient gramophone in the corner of the panelled drawing room (designed by Patrick Clark for this production with a bow to the sumptuous trappings of class and privilege) but this is also a world of text messaging and mobiles.
The modern prologue retains the aura of male privilege and entitlement — the very evils that Bernard Shaw was attacking more than a century ago when he wrote this play. And this leads to the conceit that Mrs. Warren’s Profession is receiving a present-day performance in this private London club under the watchful eye of the membership.
Does the device work? It does so brilliantly. To be sure, when the play properly begins and we first meet Vivie, we immediately notice that she’s wearing blue jeans. But does that matter? We soon realize that it doesn’t. Shaw’s crisp, witty and often pungent dialogue has no trouble surviving its transplant to contemporary times. Its bristling manifesto is for all seasons. Its ironies continue to sear, given the continuing validity of many of the things it has to say about the place of women in our society.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession made it onto stage in New York in 1905, and was denounced as “morally rotten” by one scandalized critic. In Britain, the Lord Chamberlain’s office refused to license it for public performance until 1924, three decades after Shaw wrote it.
Shaw’s offence was greater than simply writing a play about prostitution. His big offence was to suggest that a male-dominated society was the real villain — not Kitty Warren, whose chain of successful bordellos is, in Shaw’s provocative view, a triumph of entrepreneurship in a repressive culture that denies women full economic and social freedom.
Bernard Shaw regarded his plays as pegs on which he could hang his ideas. He’s delivering an incendiary message when he suggests that Kitty Warren’s career choices stem from economic expediency. Given her background and her entirely understandable determination to escape a sweatshop future and the prospect of life-long poverty and subservience, she is within her rights to pursue whatever course has the best chance of liberating her. Her chosen path has made her a wealthy woman. Hers is the classic rags-to-riches story turned on its ear. No wonder there was an uproar.
The moral ambiguities inherent in this play permeate this new production. And there’s the disconcerting sense that the four males in the cast — seen first in that prologue as macho club men, then as characters in the script, and then again as club members at the very end — continue to symbolize a culture of entitlement that persists even today. That latter message may seem obvious to anyone with a clear-eyed vision of our current culture — so some may judge director Eda Holmes to be at risk of belabouring it. Nevertheless, we can’t begrudge Holmes her success in concluding the evening with a quiet but shattering image that lingers in the memory.
Furthermore, we needn’t worry on this occasion about GBS’s didactic tendencies overwhelming the drama. This revival makes for thunderingly effective theatre. Shaw came through with a pair of beautifully defined character studies here, and one of the pleasures of this production is to watch two gifted actresses seize the opportunities the script affords. Nicole Underhay’s still youthful Kitty Warren is a figure of confidence and tenacity, a woman who has come up the hard way and is determined to preserve what she has won. There’s the toughness of the survivor in her demeanour, a touch of swagger in her body language, continuing hints of the common and the vulgar in her speech. Do we admire her? Well, let’s just say that Underhay is attentive to Shaw’s stage directions and his description of her as “a genial and fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman.” Furthermore are we really that comfortable in concluding that Kitty has it coming when daughter Vivie turns on her? Jennifer Dzialoszynski doesn’t go out her way to make us like Vivie, and that is one strength of her performance. She’s quite capable of playing the charm game early on, but she has her eye as much on the main chance when it comes to bettering herself as her mother did a generation before. But in Vivie’s case, the secure upbringing and superior education made possible by Kitty Warren’s profession have ensured that she has choices in life that were beyond her mother’s reach. This Vivie is her mother’s daughter, her equal in tenacity. But her intellect is more formidable, her moral scruples more rigid, her instinct for self-preservation more unsettling. She seems quite capable of dealing with the males who cross her path — a humbug of a cleric, whose craven hypocrisy comes through in Shawn Wright’s performance; the clergyman’s opportunistic son played by Wade Bogert-O’Brien; a fawning architect (Gray Powell). Then there’s the admirable Thom Marriott, oozing sleaze in the role of Sir George Crofts, Kitty Warren’s business partner. He can be an alarming adversary, but even his viciousness is ultimately no match for Vivie’s determination.
Vivie, of course, believes that, in rejecting her mother and her mother’s wealth, that she is doing the right thing. But are we completely comfortable buying into that? Significantly, it’s Underhay’s Kitty Warren who has the last raucous word: “Lord help the world if everyone took to doing the right thing!” So we’re back to the moral ambiguities inherent in an endlessly fascinating play. This is a super revival. (Mrs. Warren’s Profession continues at the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre until Oct. 16. Ticket information at 1 800 511 7429 or shawfest.com
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Patrick Clark: Designer
Kimberly Purtella: Lighting Designer
Diane Konkin: Stage Manager
Susanne Lankin: Assistant Stage Manager
Wade Bogert-O’Brien: Frank Gardner
Jennifer Dzialoszynski: Vivie Warren
Thom Marriott: Sir George Crofts
Gray Powell: Praed
Nicole Underhay: Mrs Kitty Warren
Shawn Wright: Reverend Samuel Gardner