Gender Time Warp
SYDNEY: Morality, money, the plight of women, and the elusiveness of emancipation are at the heart of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. As Sarah Giles, the director of the new Sydney Theatre Company production, tells Garrett Bithell, 120 years hasn’t changed much.
What is so compelling about Mrs Warren’s Profession, written by George Bernard Shaw in 1893, is how timeless it is. Despite the passing of 120 years and a number of social and political revolutions, its portrait of women – and particularly the tyranny of women’s choices – could just as easily be offered up by a playwright today.
“I’d never really come across a play that had at its absolute core two women fiercely and intellectually and in such a heartfelt way battle out what it is to be a woman,” Sarah Giles, the director of the new Sydney Theatre Company production, playing in the Wharf 1 theatre at the moment, tells SX. “When I read it I was working on Mariage Blanc, which is set at the same time, so I was completely obsessed with the 1890s and feminism.
“So when I read this play, it hit me how relevant it is, and in a really depressing way! It was written 120 years ago, and we’re still battling out its ideas, and it’s kind of sad.”
Mrs Warren’s Profession is centred on the relationship between brothel owner Kitty Warren and her daughter Vivie. When Vivie discovers that her comfortable upbringing, generous monthly allowance and privileged independence have been funded by her mother’s deep involvement in the world’s first service industry, the stage is set for one of Shaw’s wittiest, tragic and provocative encounters.
Due to the play’s obvious contemporary resonances, Giles decided from the get-go to set her production in period. “In rehearsals we constantly joked about doing a version called ‘Waz’s Job’, set in Sydney today about a prostitute heroin addict in Kings Cross,” Giles laughs. “But in all seriousness we discovered that actually leaving it in the 1890s kind of made the play more profound than by updating it. To be able to interrogate now through the prism of the past was the main reason I really wanted to do it.”
Giles has assembled a stellar cast, featuring Helen Thomson (In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play for STC and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll for Belvoir) as Kitty and Lizzie Schebesta (A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Sport for Jove and Macbeth of Bell Shakespeare) as Vivie. “The minute I read the play I thought of Helen,” Giles says. I’ve always wanted to work with her; I think she’s extraordinary. And not long after I thought of Lizzie, who exudes a powerful mind and wit, whereas Helen has such heart and pathos and humour. I remember them doing the final scene at the audition and my hairs standing on end.”
By using the Wharf 1 theatre in thrust formation – it’s almost in the round – the action never feels old or far away. Conversely, all the dust is blown off and the action feels immediate and vibrant. “This is a play where you want your audiences to walk away furiously discussing women, women’s rights, women’s choices, and what it is to be a woman today,” Giles muses. “It’s one of the few plays written by a man for women. Heated debate would be the best outcome: something that lasts longer than the single glass of champagne that you have after a show.”
[Image] Lizzie Schebesta (foreground) and Helen Thomson in the final scene of Mrs Warren’s Profession, where Kitty Warren and her daughter Vivie go head to head in a battle of ideals. Photo: Brett Boardman
Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, Walsh Bay until April 6, with a return season July 4 – 20. Bookings www.sydneytheatre.com.au.