ALL PHOTOS BY BRETT BOARDMAN
I came home from the theatre a couple of nights ago and, somewhat over-excited, I announced on Facebook: ‘Sorry Judy and Cate, Helen Thomson is my new favourite Sydney actress!’ By that I did not mean for the others to step down from the podium, but perhaps make some room. My ‘shouting from the roof tops’ wasn’t about who is good, better or best, although an official acknowledgement of Helen Thomson’s elite status is overdue. And there are others, to be fair – Pamela Rabe and Susan Prior immediately come to mind. In fact the trouble is we have too many good actresses for the number of roles available. Many more than we have capable men. So if I haven’t mentioned your name here already it doesn’t mean I don’t hold you in high regard. It’s just that I want to talk about Helen Thomson in Mrs Warren’s Profession. This was definitely her role – in the demands it called far: an artlessness that required great craft.
It’s been building, my admiration for Thomson’s work. And it’s not just about being a good actress. It’s also her kind of acting which particularly appeals to me. There is so often a tender vulnerability, and a compassion for the characters she plays. Along with an invisible, gravity-defying structure holding her best work aloft. Elegant, light of touch, sensitive, deft, tender are descriptors that immediately come mind. Her characters appear to be spun out of air. But then, whenever we least expect, we are shown the boldness, conviction and fortitude of a lioness in attack.
Some of the productions where I have been drawn to her work include In the Next Room or the vibrator play, The Season at Sarsaparilla (both at STC) and as Pearl in Neil Armfield’s production of The Summer of the 17th Doll at Belvoir. But nevermore so have we seen this ‘other’ side of Helen Thomson’s gift/skill than in the title role of Mr Kitty Warren in Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession.
At first Thomson begins as if speaking through a veil. It feels kind of thin, almost unconvincing. Is the actress unwell? It’s actually a deliberate disguise, which goes with the story. Because not long after, in an answer to a question from here daughter, the veil is ripped away. Even her posh accent is thrown to the floor. We realise she has been in control the whole time. She’s been toying with us. Towards the end of the play, she slips in and out of these two people (the original and her double) as she struggle’s to explain to her beautiful, smart, bold, honest daughter as to why it is the way it is. It’s all been for her, her daughter.But the daughter, Vivie, will have none of it. Unfortunately she has been brought up too well to take a step back. A terrific performance also – confident and bright – from Lizzie Schebesta as Vivie: on equal footing with Thomson – scene for scene, if a little less complex. We will be surely seeing more of Shcebesta after this.
What was mother’s profession, her daughter asks? Okay so what is her profession now? Why? Why still. The daughter does not like what she hears. Any more than the mother likes to hear her daughter speak to her this way. This is a mother-daughter cat-fight that leaves a lot of claw marks. And at the end of the play, we are left probably agreeing that both are in the right only to the extent that they are both, tragically, to some degree also in the wrong.
It’s a brilliant script by Shaw, in my view more significant and successful than Pygmalion; though in its time it met with much consternation from the critics and authorities alike. Performances were banned in England and America for several years. A case of too many home truths about the system for those running the system to accept.
I’m really not giving too much away. Because Shaw, inspired by Ibsen, chose to take on social themes. And Shaw, like the provocative 1970s German filmmaker Fassbinder, also liked to leave his endings open (see Fassbinder’s film based on the Ibsen play A Doll House). The mother and the daughter may part ways, but that’s not the point. The question is – why? What prior circumstances had led to this? We know from Isabella in Measure for Measure there is also (hello Vivie) the sin of pride. Is the daughter really doing the right thing it sending her mother packing?
Well, that’s for us to argue over wine or coffee after we leave the theatre. Bourgeois drama requires ‘closure’ – by the end we are happily back to where we were in the beginning usually after one too many songs. Grateful for being thoroughly distracted from our worries in the real world for a few hours before we return to it unchanged. It’s like sugar, we can enjoy some of it in our food, but it cannot compose the entirety of our diet. Shaw did not write bourgeois melodramas. Shaw was a fair-dinkum Socialist, from a time when that meant something. And we, the people, must find our own answers to the questions raised in the play. Or in the very least admit the subject under Shaw’s spotlight is more complex and multi-faceted than we thought before we the entered the theatre.
A few other thoughts. The STC has had a heck of a fine start to the year. And looking at what lies ahead one could chance a bet on a bit more good stuff coming our way. On paper the combination of particular actors and directors to scripts looks good. And the texts are of interest. Who doesn’t want to see The Maids with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in a production directed by Benedict Andrews? We can’t ask for more than that. What leads to success beyond this is in the hands of the gods, or a good rehearsal period, or perhaps even chance.
This production of Mrs Warren’s Profession is directed by up-and-coming Sarah Giles who very clearly succeeds in delivering the package in one piece and with impact. Despite a few quibbles I have, she should be very proud of her achievement.
It’s neat and well-paced. For a Shaw play you feel the comedy woven into the politics. Though I think Giles could have pushed Simon Burke as Praed a little more to an extreme (easily within the grasp of Burke’s talent and experience). As a family friend, Praed is nice and jolly. But his blindness to the reality that other people can be very wayward is seen by Shaw as irresponsible. Burke’s Praed tiptoes through the lives of his friends blinkered to anything that might be called problematic. He is not just in the play to add a bit of fun. To Shaw it’s a fault: only a character as wealthy as Praed can drift through life without a care in the world.
Similarly with Drew Forsythe as The Revd. Samuel Gardner, whose role on the plot I will not divulge. As keenly presented as he is by the gifted Drew Forsythe, it’s a given that Shaw loathed dithering county clergymen as much as he did the Archbishop of Canterbury. Through harmless little rituals like country christenings and weddings, along with visits to his wealthier parishioners for cups of tea, the very good Revd. is stitching up a continuation of the class divide. I do think here some of the punch in the play is lost. On top of that Revd Gardner is living out one very big lie.
What Giles focuses on – the relationship between mother and daughter – is excellently done. Yes we have two significant talents at work here in Thomson and Schebesta. But their scenes need to be orchestrated. And yes we have a new director rising the the ranks.
It’s a simple and effective set, from another emerging talent, Renee Mulder. Perhaps a little hesitant. Its scantiness apart from a wall of flowers (very nice) works well. This simple look certainly didn’t need a revolve, especially for the little work that was asked of it. The costumes meanwhile are just lovely: beautifully made and not a bit overstated.
All in all, we have a work the creatives can be proud of. A middle ranking achievement from the newbies, but that’s fine. Some of the support roles could be pushed around a bit more to add further echoing of the themes (some audience members will leave this production unaware that Shaw loathed people like Praed and the Revd Gardner). I need to say here quickly Martin Jacobs, however, absolutely nails Sir George Crofts. A rather slimy figure who knows all too well that money can buy happiness. If not quite so in the case of Vivie, other chances lie ahead. It’s this decision, regarding Crofts offer, where Vivie most directly mirrors the major life choice of her mother. But her mother did not enjoy the benefits of a good education, when it comes to the fight, as a card to put down on the table!
One reason to go out of your way to see this production is Shaw’s wonderful script, influenced by Ibsen yet even more overtly conscience-prickingly provocative. Both dramatists suffered rejection of their early work for much the same reason: the content was of their plays was ‘scandalous’. When, in looking back from where we are a century later, we know the Shaw’s real offence is in questioning the rights of some among us to enjoy extra privileges. Actually lots of extra privileges. For no input from themselves.
That the cruelty of class divide has morphed into a global format (country against country as much as citizen against citizen) is not a point this production puts to us directly. But it doesn’t mean we can’t take our mind there as we snuggle in under our one-thousand-thred linen sheets.
The other is Helen Thomson’s intelligent and beautifully shaped performance. Criticism is never objective and should never pretend to be. All I can say here is: I love watching Helen Thomson act. And never more so than as the heroic and loving mother, Mrs Kitty Warren. Who gets spat on in the end for her doing the wrong thing so her daughter can enjoy the right results.