Arts Review

Shaw Festival Review: Mrs. Warren’s Profession

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Mrs. Warren’s Profession

A play by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Eda Holmes
Designed by Patrick Clark

Starring: Jennifer Dzialoszynski (Vivie Warren), Nicole Underhay (Mrs. Warren), Gray Powell (Mr. Praed), Thom Marriott (Sir George Crofts), Wade Bogart-O’Brien (Frank Gardner), Shawn Wright (Reverend Samuel Gardner)

One has to hand it to Eda Holmes. This year she has directed two major productions at Shaw both of which deal with the “woman question.” How do you handle a problem like—well, in Wilde’s case, a shameless woman like “Mrs. Arbuthnot,” who has a baby out of wedlock or in this current Shavian instance, someone like Mrs. Warren?

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Mrs. Warren’s Profession is one of Shaw’s first and most notorious plays. Shaw’s justification of his protagonist’s position as former prostitute and current brothel keeper led to it being banned in London for over 30 years. Holmes brilliantly brings the play up-to-date by staging it as a revival of Mrs. Warren’s Profession’s initial production in London at the Men’s Lyric Club in 1902. A production in a club was outside of the Lord Chamberlain’s purview as a censor, which was how Shaw was able to get the play to part of the public (we could call them the one percent) within a decade of when it was written.

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By placing the play back at the Lyric, the actors get to take selfies and talk directly to the audience, explaining that they’re now temporarily invited into their club. Women, they explain, are only allowed in certain rooms at the club and if they wish to smoke, they can only do so outdoors, accompanied by a man, who can return them to the sanctity of the premises.

Cheekily, Holmes scores her point: things haven’t changed that much in the world; sexism still exists.

As for the play, Nicole Underhay is superb as Mrs. Warren, quite transfixing as the still-beautiful woman, who can entice her daughter Vivie’s boyfriend Frank into flirting with her, while controlling all the other men around her: business partner Sir George Crofts; Frank’s father and her former lover the Reverend Samuel Gardner; and her artist friend Praed. The one person she can’t control is Vivie (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) and it is their duel, which is at the core of this production.

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Mrs. Warren’s Profession is, to my mind, an uneven play. The men are caricatures representing various forms of conceit and hypocrisy, which leaves us only caring about the two Warren women. Watching the play, I always find that I’m rooting for Mrs. Warren’s lucid explanation of why she became a prostitute—as someone young and beautiful with no education or money, did she have better options?—and getting increasingly annoyed with Vivie’s winning rebuttal at the play’s denouement. Though a critique of exploitation (and Mrs. Warren is clearly a good capitalist) is a good argument for Vivie to make, it seems to be such a letdown for the mother and daughter to part ways. But Shaw never rewrote the play so he stood by it.

At the play’s end, Holmes stages a coup de theatre, having the four men read the directions Vivie has to perform at the play’s conclusion. It’s unnerving to see the apparently liberated Vivie controlled and viewed by men, who are also frightened by her. We’re left in a state of tension, which is a far better place than where Shaw wants to leave us. Kudos to Holmes and this excellent production.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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