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Jane Enkin

Mrs. Warren's Profession by G. Bernard Shaw at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre January 19 -- February 4

Jane Enkin,Feb 1, 2012

Mrs. Warren's Profession, in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's wonderful production, blends heart-felt, passionate performances with wit and demanding, challenging ideas.

At the centre of Shaw's play is the conflict of a mother and daughter, each responding to the conditions and expectations for women of their times. Vivie is “The New Woman” of the 1890's-- skilled, highly educated, dressed in masculine styles, insisting on her self-reliance. This was an uphill battle. The brilliant scholar Vivie only has “what amounts to a high degree from Cambridge” -- she achieved top marks, but women who studied at Cambridge were not eligible to receive a degree. Her mother, Mrs. Warren, is from an earlier era, relying on the effect her beauty and charm has on men. As the title reminds us though, Mrs. Warren, too, is an independent business woman.

The production is deeply engaging – there was lots of conversation about the relationships and ideas in the play at intermission and after the show. Shaw's objective in writing this and other “Plays Unpleasant” is still met today – we leave the theatre admiring, but uncomfortable, thoughtful, ready to confront ideas we might otherwise avoid.

My experience was enriched by the Saturday afternoon panel, Shaw and Women's Rights. Margaret Groome, U of M professor, gave a fascinating overview of 19th century feminist issues and the struggle for women's suffrage. Heidi Malazdrewich, Apprentice Director at RMTC, discussed the social roles of mother and daughter in Mrs. Warren's Profession. “The New Woman” was perceived by conservative thinkers as taking a stand against femininity, an actual danger to society.

Leonard Conolly, Professor at Trent University, President of the International Shaw Society (and incidentally a dramatic speaker with a powerful, beautiful voice) said that in his essays, letters and speeches, Shaw gave unambiguous and unequivocal support to women's rights. In his plays, on the other hand, Shaw explored the challenges and ambiguities of real human beings. For the women in Shaw's plays who want individual or social change, there is always a heavy price to be paid.

The options for women in Shaw's time (and for many women in our own time as well) are clearly discussed in Mrs. Warren's Profession. For women sufficiently above the level of poverty, the expectation was marriage. Marrying for money was a given for some women – not “gold-digging”, but the only route to security. Shaw satirizes this truism by presenting the charming Frank, winningly played by Tom Keenan, as the only character in the play who plans to take that route.

Given the opportunity, women of exceptional talent, drive, or intelligence could pursue success in limited areas, such as performing arts, nursing or teaching.

For most women, single or raising children, life held the prospect of jobs at best demeaning and severely underpaid; at worst, draining and dangerous factory labour. High-end sex work was an attractive alternative.

Thomas Hardy spelled out the contrast in his poem The Ruined Maid:

“... You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,

Tired of diggin' potatoes an' spuddin' up docks;

And now you've gay bracelets and fine feathers three!"

"Yes: that's how we dress when we're ruined," said she...

“I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,

And a delicate face, and could strut about town!"

"My dear, a poor country girl, such as you be,

Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined, you see.”

An appealing alternative -- not only, Mrs. Warren explains, because of the much higher income, but because of a greater measure of control over one's own life. Here is another way in which mother and daughter in the play are the same while appearing so different – each is determined to have this autonomy.

As they clarify their perspectives to one another, Vivie and Mrs. Warren reveal the price to be paid pointed out by Professor Conolly. Both women work to “get on”, taking no satisfaction in the work itself. Each avoids family life and romantic love – they see each other as very different, but they have this in common. Mrs. Warren's emotional expectations of a mother-daughter relationship remain puzzling – what does she hope for after being an “absent mother” for years?

Gripping performances guide us through the characters' dilemmas. This play provides a wonderful opportunity to see master artist Seana McKenna, as Mrs. Warren, at work. A Dora award-winning actor and director, Ms. McKenna has had twenty seasons playing leading roles at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and has appeared many times at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. She gives a nuanced performance, with emotional shifts communicated by gesture, shifts in posture and the music of her rich, flexible voice. Cherissa Richards, as Vivie, is riveting, filled with fire and ice. Vivie goes through a greater range of experience and emotion in the script than any other character, and Richards carries us with her through it all. There is a moment before intermission when there is a glowing, open-hearted warmth between mother and daughter, and the power of the two actors' connection on stage colours everything that comes before and after in the play.

I enjoyed speculating on how Shaw might present this set of characters today. The major issues would remain unchanged, but the people would be labelled and understood in different ways. The mathematics scholar Vivie is at the mild end of the Asperger's Syndrome continuum, with keen intelligence, single-minded focus, and little interest in social graces. Mr. Praed, devoted to the arts and pleased to be of value to Mrs Warren as a friend without romance or sex, is likely gay. Surely the characters would engage at some point in the contemporary controversies among those sympathetic to sex workers. Some would argue for abolition, urging the necessity of “rescuing” any woman drawn by circumstances into sex work, while others would call for a legalized sex trade as a commercial activity like any other, with regulations, mandatory health testing, zoning restrictions, and workplace safety expectations.

That said, Aliza Palmer's lucid direction encourages the audience to enter into the play in its own time and social context. Things ought to be different for women, the characters say, but this is simply how the world is arranged.

I'll give the last word to Professor Conolly “Shaw's characters are not mouthpieces for ideas, but people. Each character only knows their own truth.”

Mrs. Warren's Profession

Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre

140 Rupert Avenue at Lily Street


January 19-February 4, 2012

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