GEORGE Bernard Shaw must have been uncomfortable company – stimulating but frustrating, unsentimental, proto-feminist and convention-challenging, but infuriatingly pompous. Mrs Warren’s Profession, one of his earliest plays, has all these characteristics and more!
The inspiration in this terrific new Theatre Royal Bath production, directed by Anthony Banks, is to cast mother and daughter Caroline Quentin, as Mrs (Kitty) Warren and Rose Quentin as her daughter Vivie. Real-life parent and child, who are obviously close and in the same profession, play stage mother and daughter who barely know each other and come from very different worlds.
Mrs Warren, a successful and wealthy business woman, has done her best for her daughter – provided nannies, excellent schooling and the funds to enable her to have outstanding success as a mathematics scholar at Cambridge University. Now, as old age reluctantly snaps at her elegant heels, she is coming to see her daughter, whom she confidently expects to be ready to look after her.
But Vivie hardly knows her mother and has sublimated her feelings of abandonment in work. She has grown up as an independent, intelligent young woman, with very clear ideas on a career and no plans for romance.
Mrs Warren swans into the garden of her daughter’s bijou country cottage – here depicted as an enchanting miniature, like an oversized doll’s house – where Vivie is having a brief rustic respite from her demanding London job. In Kitty’s wake come her business partner and long-time lover, a typically Shavian arrogant older man, Sir George Crofts (the always reliable Simon Shepherd) and her dilettante art-loving friend Praed (Stephen Rahman-Hughes).
Vivie has a flirtatious relationship with Frank (Peter Losasso), son of the local rector, the Rev Sam Gardner (Matthew Cottle). Frank is genuinely fond of Vivie but he is a lazy good-for-nothing who knows he will have to marry money.
Left on their own, on a late summer evening, Kitty tells Vivie her heart-breaking story of growing up in extreme poverty in London and the steps she and her older sister took to lift themselves out of the gutter and into successful lives. Vivie is deeply moved and warms to her mother as never before.
But Shaw doesn’t leave us with a happy ending – his grande dame is a ruthlessly manipulative woman whose success is hard-won; her daughter is a romantic idealist, unable to deal with the brutal reality of her mother’s true “profession.”
You might see this as hypocrisy in such an independent young woman – but Vivie is a complicated character with a sentimental image of the “deserving” poor which her mother callously (but, you may think, necessarily) shatters.
It must have been a shocking play when first published in 1902 – it is still a deeply uncomfortable one. How much can we ask of our children? How should we judge our parents? Are parents doomed to be disappointed by their children? Are children cursed more by their parents’ expectations of them or by their own failure to see their parents as flawed people who did their best?
This striking production, moved up about 20 years to the inter-war years, asks all these questions and leaves the audience to ponder the answers. It is often funny and sometimes deeply moving. The central relationship is powerfully explored – it will probably depend on your own age and experiences of childhood and/or parenthood as to how you ultimately feel about the play.
Photographs by Pamela Raith