Friday, March 19, 2010

There are some dramatists I seem to veer more towards than others. This struck me in the week when we went to see the latest revival of George Bernard Shaw's MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION at the Comedy Theatre.

In all I have seen three of his plays: MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION, HEARTBREAK HOUSE and SAINT JOAN.
Three out of forty five is not a good batting average. However I do a bit better with film versions as I have seen five of them - CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, SAINT JOAN, THE MILLIONAIRESS, PYGMALION and MAJOR BARBARA.

In truth I have always found Shaw a little 'sticky' - more often than not, the play is not the thing, that hectoring tone is never far away.

However, MRS, WARREN'S PROFESSION is less of a theatrical debating room as it was written in 1893 while he was still finding his theatrical voice. In fact more than anything, it shows the influence of Ibsen on his early writing and the opprobrium that greeted MRS. WARREN was similar to the critical revulsion to GHOSTS or A DOLL'S HOUSE. Indeed, it's first production in New York in 1905 resulted in the entire company being arrested. Since then the play has been staged regularly, constantly providing actresses with two rattling good roles.Vivie is a confident girl, flush from her recent success at Cambridge, whose blue stocking attitude is rocked by her discovery that her comfortable life and college education have been bank-rolled by her mother's profession as a high-class brothel-keeper in several cities of Europe.

Despite the rather ephemeral male characters who are there to show up the hypocritical standards of the male world - and ergo provide most of the humour - the play comes into it's own with the two confrontation scenes between the mother and daughter. Unlike most playwrights, Shaw doesn't allow us the privilege of siding with one against the other - both characters have valid points to make but emotionalism is the downfall of both of them - too much on the mother's side, not enough on the daughter's.What still rings true down the years is the great speech Shaw gives Mrs. Warren to explain her choices in life - which of course meant no choice. Refusing the lead factory that killed her half-sister, the 'respectable' choices are a life in service or as an under-paid barmaid. That is until her long-lost sister Liz appears in the bar dressed to the nines with money to spend.

In the text - and as Brenda Blethyn played it in the Peter Hall
production I saw a few years ago - Mrs. Warren reverts back to a cockney accent during this speech but here director Michael Rudman has Felicity Kendal play the scene straight and indeed played thus, and with Kendal's conviction, there is no need for such a device.

I liked Kendal's performance, the only trouble being that in moments when she has to rant and rave, her vocal range doesn't allow for it. However what she does capture well in the final scene is Kitty Warren's obvious maternal emotionalism slowly giving way to clear-eyed anger.

Lucy Briggs-Owen gave no ground as the modern Vivie nicely playing the character down the line with no attempt at making her sympathetic.

David Yelland gave a suave and stylish performance as Sir John Crofts, Mrs. Warren's titled business investor who can fight as nasty as any streetfighter and I also liked Max Bennett as Frank, Vivie's erstwhile boyfriend. A self-confessed slacker, he appears to be there for comic relief but ultimately shows that he is as much of a realist as the others.As I said, Michael Rudman's production only seemed to galvanise itself in the big confrontation scenes while Paul Farnsworth's set, while charming with it's design of faded images of country fields and garden flowers, stopped any momentum due to the length of the scene changes.

That should do me for Shaw for a while!

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