Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Shaw Festival

We’ve been going to the Shaw Festival long enough now to see most all the full-length Bernard Shaw plays that are actually performed anymore (which is still most of them). We’ve also seen some of them more than once: Major Barbara (1998 and 2004), The Philanderer (1995 and 2007), Arms and the Man (1994 and 2006), and now, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1997 and 2008).

What surprised us was that in each case we saw a livelier, better-focused, more entertaining production the second time around.  From which we conclude that, for the last half dozen years, the Shaw Festival has been doing Shaw better then ever.

This year’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a case in point.  The 1997 production had left us with the impression that this was a relatively humorless Shaw play with a strained plot and an uninteresting heroine who shouldn’t have had so much trouble deciding how she felt about her mother.  After seeing the 2008 version, we know better.

Andrew Bunker and Moya O'Connell as Vivie and Frank in "Mrs. Warren's Profession"

As this play opens, the 22-year-old Vivie Warren (Moya O’Connell) has just graduated from Cambridge with an advanced degree in mathematics (a rare accomplishment for a woman in the 1890s). What next? She has an opportunity with an actuarial office in London; at the same time, during a vacation at her mother’s country cottage, she has been dallying with a young man from the neighborhood, Frank Gardner (Andrew Bunker).

Unaware that her daughter has ideas of her own, Vivie’s mother Kitty Warren (Mary Haney), wants to set her up in society.   But after years of boarding schools and university, Vivie hardly knows her mother and has questions.  Who is her father?  (Why was Shaw attracted to this theme?  He used it in You Never Can Tell as well.)  How has her mother made her money? And why does she spend all her time away in Brussels and Vienna?

Mary Haney and Benedict Campbell as Mrs. Warren and Crofts

Vivie is shocked to learn from her mother and her mother’s friends that the money that has put her through England’s finest schools has come from a string of European brothels managed by her mother — and that her mother was herself once a courtesan.  She is also dismayed to find that her mother is encouraging her to entertain the matrimonial advances of a wealthy but dissolute baronet (played by Benedict Campbell) twice her age — who was once one of her mother’s customers.

This show, as directed by Jackie Maxwell, never rushes and never drags.  The fine sets, which reminded us of tinted etchings, drew us back to the late 19th century.  In general, Ms. Maxwell followed the set, costuming, and stage directions that Shaw set down when he wrote the play.  We were grateful for this; too often directors who would not substitute their own dialogue for a playwright’s have no qualms about ignoring the director’s other specifications for his play.

On the left: Mary Haney as Mrs. Warren. On the right: one of Toulouse-Lautrec's madames.

The acting is marvelous, especially that of Shaw Festival veteran Mary Haney as Mrs. Warren herself, who plays a character struggling to straddle two worlds.  Early in the play, aspiring to marry her daughter to a baronet and aspiring to a place in English society, she is costumed and behaves like an English gentlewoman.  By the last scene, about to return to her life as a brothel madam, both her costume (very much like one of the garish madams in a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec) and her coarse manner is that of the brothels to which she is about to return.  The audience is persuaded that Mrs. Warren was born into the lowest ranks of London society because (thanks to the skill of Ms. Haney) her working-class accent “betrays” her at moments of high emotion (an effect prescribed by Shaw himself).

Toulouse-Lautrec's painting "At the Moulin Rouge" is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago

As Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s silent partner in the prostitution business, Benedict Campbell is appropriately revolting; our audience sighed audibly with relief when Vivie rejected his proposal.  Despite his distinguished appearance and manner, Campbell passes easily for the “brutal waster” that Vivie Warren saw him for. 

Andrew Bunker, as Vivie’s romantic interest (and possibly her half-brother), shows himself an excellent Shavian actor.  Only Moya O’Connell, as Mrs. Warren’s daughter, was not fully satisfactory.  We did not hear her as well as the other actors, and every now and then she seemed to mistake the meaning of her lines by emphasizing the wrong words.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is one of two plays at the Shaw Festival this year with a connection to one of Emsworth’s favorite writers, Evelyn Waugh.  As I noted in an earlier post, Terrence Rattigan’s After the Dance provides a “ten years later” look at the frivolous young socialites the 1920s, the subjects of several of Waugh’s brilliant novels.  In the finest of those novels, Decline and Fall, one of the characters learns belatedly that his rich fiance, Margot Beste-Chetwynde, is actually the proprietor of a chain of brothels in South America.  Waugh must have had Kitty Warren in the back of his mind when he invented his character in Decline and Fall.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of The Stepmother at the Shaw Festival.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of the Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married at the Shaw Festival.

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