It’s both a dark and funny thing to peer into a time so long ago and realize that many of the things we scoff at in history have not really disappeared from our lives. They may have been altered, or manifest in different ways – but they still eerily linger nonetheless.
Directed by Eda Holmes, Shaw Festival presents Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession in a way that manages to poke fun at the societal values enveloping the late Victorian era, while simultaneously prompting the audience to pick apart the pieces of the play that are undeniably – and in many ways, unfortunately – still relevant in our own society.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession is centered on prostitution and the disparity between women and men in the job force in England during the late 1800s. However, though women evidently have more options and opportunities today (depending on where they’re from), they still continue to face wage gaps and gender discrimination in the workplace – and many young women continue to get lured into prostitution, even here in Toronto.
At its core, Mrs. Warren’s Profession is about a moral battle between mother and daughter. Vivie Warren (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) is a nose-in-the-air, Cambridge-educated 22-year-old who has lived off her mother’s dollar, not knowing where the money came from, and built her “own way of life” as a result.
Mrs. Warren (Nicole Underhay), who didn’t grow up in such favourable circumstances, turned to a secret life of prostitution and pimping in order to make enough money to support herself, and eventually her daughter as well.
Dzialoszynski plays an abrasive Vivie, who is stubborn in her beliefs and morals, and is thus determined to make an honest living. Her character, paired with Mrs. Warren, are perfect opposites. Underhay draws us into her story, and we see how she became so attached to her lifestyle and dogged in her beliefs. The two create a heartbreaking, tension-filled struggle as the audience comes to terms with the impossibility of each of them ever understanding the other’s viewpoint.
Holmes sets the show, and brilliantly so, at the fictional New Lyric Gentlemen’s Club, an extravagant dark wood and red-carpeted drawing room designed by Patrick Clark. It is where we are introduced to actors Gray Powell, Thom Marriott, Wade Bogert-O’Brien and Shawn Wright, who are hanging out white male privilege-style and taking group selfies at the start of the show. This is the first instance when we see the melding of past and present.
The audience is told that it is a special night at the Gentlemen’s Club, where ladies are permitted to sit and view their performance of Mrs. Warren’s Profession – provided that they do not enter certain rooms (by the way, places like this still exist today).
Now, for those of you who don’t know, Mrs. Warren’s Profession was written in 1893, but was banned from the public due to its then-controversial subject matter and was not granted a public performance for about three decades. Until then, it would have been performed in places just like The New Lyric Gentlemen’s Club.
We are cognizant of this play’s resonance with current society not only through the subject matter, but in the small ways it is woven through the play’s details, including the fact that Dzialoszynski is clad in the same brand of blue jeans I own in one particular scene.
This is a show that is both superbly acted and designed, and properly executed on many levels. It pays tribute to the time and circumstances in which it was written, while also holding a mirror right back at us and begging the question: how much have we really progressed? Mrs. Warren’s Profession is definitely not one to miss this season.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession runs at the Royal George Theatre until Oct. 23. For more information, visit http://www.shawfest.com/.