by Lynn on May 23, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Eda Holmes
Designed by Patrick Clark
Lighting by Kimberley Purtell
Cast: Wade Bogert-O’Brien
Jennifer Dzialoszynski
Thom Marriott
Gray Powell
Nicole Underhay
Shawn Wright.

Shaw’s prickly play about a well-intentioned mother and her privileged prig of a daughter getting all uppity when she finds out how her mother has earned her living, which has funded the prig’s education and life-style. What is a woman’s worth? The question continues to be asked, alas.

The Story. Mrs. Warren has arrived from the Continent, where she tends to her business interests, to visit her daughter Vivie. Vivie has graduated university and intends to work in a friend’s office for her living. Vivie is greeted by Praed, a friend of her mother. He’s a courtly aesthete, a lover of arts and beauty. Vivie is being pursued by Frank Gardner, a charming lay-about who has never made a living and never will. He hopes to marry Vivie so she will support him.

Vivie is also being pursued by Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s business partner. Sir George is an imposing, accomplished, shady man. While Vivie is as pleasant as she is capable with Frank, she is downright cutting and even rude to Sir George.

In the course of the visit Vivie learns how her mother made her money—it doesn’t seem to have interested her before. Mrs. Warren earned her money through prostitution. She explains to Vivie that for a poor woman there wasn’t much else that would earn her good money. Vivie at first is mortified, saying there is always something else she could have done, but comes to understand her mother’s position, that is until Croft tells her that it is still going on, only this time her mother is in management. Her mother successfully manages a string of brothels in Europe and that is where the money came from that has funded Vivie’s tony education and comfortable lifestyle. And then there is the mystery of who her father is.

The Production. When Mrs. Warren’s Profession was first produced in London in 1902 it had to be done in a private men’s club, the New Lyric Gentlemen’s Club. The reason was the Lord Chamberlain would not grant the play a permit to perform in a public place because of the subject matter. Director Eda Holmes has set the play in the New Lyric Gentlemen’s club in the present day as if the good members of the club are performing a modern revival of it.

Patrick Clark has designed a masculine set for the club: a leather couch and substantial chairs, gleaming dark wood walls, a drinks cart, shelves of books.

Clark’s costumes are also effective. Sir George Crofts wears a beautiful well tailored light grey suit. Vivie Warren is in functional clothes, nothing frilly. Mrs. Warren is very stylish in trendy dresses. Her ensemble for her last scene when Mrs. Warren has it out with Vivie, made me smile. Mrs. Warren is in a beautiful Chanel suit. She wears ropes and ropes of gold necklaces and other jewellery. It’s Saturday morning and while the suit says “success” all that gaudy jewellery says “excess”. This deliberate costuming gives Mrs. Warren away as a woman trying to pass for respectable.

Club members scurry around with their scripts doing final checks before they begin to perform the play. Some take photos of the audience with their cell phones. At one point the men take a group selfie.

There is a prologue given by the strapping and compelling Thom Marriott. He tells us of the history of the first performance taking place in that very club. He reminds us to turn off our electronic devices and that if the ladies wish to go out for a smoke, they must be accompanied back into the club by a member of the club.

The play starts from there as Shaw wrote it. Vivie Warren (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) greets Mr. Praed. Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie is supremely confident, matter of fact, properly humourless and will not be bullied or trifled with. Charm is not Vivie’s strong suit and Dzialoszynski plays that curtness beautifully. Praed, on the other hand, as played by Gray Powell, is excessively courtly, polite, and gallant. In a bit of dash Praed wears maroon pants, a smart blazer and good shoes. That is a man unafraid of wearing colour and I believe him when he says he’s an artist.

Vivie humours Frank Gardner’s advances in an almost coy way. Wade Bogert-O’Brien plays Frank with that boyish charm that comes from a place of entitlement. He can’t see any reason why Vivie would not fall all over herself to have him as her husband. With Sir George Crofts Vivie is formidable. The visual of Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie looking up at Thom Marriott as Sir George is hilarious. Dzialoszynski is probably 5’3 or less. Marriott is about 6’4. She stares right up at him, he peers down on her. But Dzialoszynski as Vivie is so fearless she cuts Sir George Croft down to size. That still does not diminish that Thom Marriott illuminates the power of Sir George and that he is very dangerous if you cross him.

The woman who gets all this activity in motion is of course Mrs Kitty Warren herself. She certainly has her work cut out for her trying to curry her daughter’s favour and affections. As played by Nicole Underhay, Mrs. Warren is that mix of brassy and charm that could intrigue men. I did think that perhaps Underhay is a bit too young to play Mrs. Warren, but Underhay is a good actress and won me over.

Director Eda Holmes has a fine eye for detail and beautifully establishes the relationships in this tricky play. There is a lot of shifting of power here between Mrs. Warren, Vivie, Frank, and Sr. George. Eda Holmes gracefully manoeuvres all of it to that it is subtle but clear.

Comment. Mrs. Warren’s Profession was first performed in the Lyric Gentlemen’s Club but by the company of actors originally intended to perform it. Here it is the members of the club who are doing the play. My question is who are the women playing Mrs. Warren and Vivie Warren? They can’t be members of the club because women were not allowed to join. In fact women could not enter the club without a member escorting them in, so I ask again, who are the two women? Employees? No, they would be men. Friends of the members? I don’t think so either. A puzzlement.

Shaw certainly explores the whole notion of working women, the opportunities they have (or not) for advancement and the whole question of money. If a woman is to have an independent life she must have a job and money.

Mrs. Warren knows the value of a job and money. She was born poor and saw the ravaging effects of it on a person. But she also saw that making money was important and she got into a job that paid well, namely prostitution first then managing brothels next. She thought she was doing right by her daughter to bring her up, albeit from afar, with plenty of money for her schooling and living. Vivie on the other hand has every advantage thanks to her mother and does nothing unless there is something in it for her. She excels in school because of a wager. She intends to work in a friend’s office and earn her own keep. When Praed invites her to Italy to appreciate the art she wants none of it. It’s a waste of her time. I wonder if Shaw is saying that Vivie is a hard, narrow-minded, humourless prig because she has no art or beauty in her life, or because she doesn’t seem to have had physical love (hugs/kisses/encouragement in person) from her mother or anyone really.

It’s interesting that Vivie doesn’t seem to have known or cared how her mother made the money that supported her (Vivie) all those years. On this rare visit Vivie finds out how her mother made a living and is furious using the argument that it was demeaning etc.

Mrs. Warren then gives her daughter a lesson in reality-she needed to make money and this was the quickest way to make a lot of it. Vivie counters by saying there were other ways of doing it. Vivie is reconciled until she learns that her mother is still involved in the trade—this time as a manager of various establishments. It’s equally intriguing that Vivie defends her mother later by saying that her mother had no choice but to go into that line of work to make a living. It seems that Vivie changes the argument to suit her situation.

This being George Bernard Shaw there are comments about the plight of working women in a man’s world; the inequity in making money between women in certain jobs, and comment on how one makes money. For Mrs. Warren it’s prostitution. For Undershaft in Major Barbara it’s selling arms and munitions to whomever pays the price. Undershaft is an exemplary employee, but to his family he’s a horror because of how he makes a living.

This is where life imitates arts. When I was driving to the Shaw Festival to see Mrs. Warren’s Profession last week, I was listening to a radio program on advertising. The theme was that porn sites were advertising in the mainstream media and vice versa. One major porn site offered a $25,000 scholarship to any university and the application process was legit and rigorous. Part of the process was to write an essay on how you make people happy. It did not involve nudity or a porn video. It was legit. A mother of two in Texas won the scholarship. What’s the difference in where the money came from—prostitution or pornography, or arms dealing? I love how Shaw creates these moral dilemmas.

On a similar note; I was walking in Soho in London a few years ago, once a seedy area and now gentrified. I was on a stylish street. The buildings looked well kept. One door caught my eye. There was a small brass plate on the black door above the door knocker. I moved closer to see what it said: “This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address.” Woow.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a terrific play and it’s been given a dandy production.

Produced by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: May 14, 2016.
Closes: October 16, 2016.
Cast: 6: 4 men, 2 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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