Before the creative team behind Sydney Theatre Company’s Mrs Warren’s Profession had even put their heads together earlier this year, the production had sold out. The subscriber base went nuts for it and when single tickets went on sale there weren’t many left to grab. The only fair solution? An extra season in the middle of the year.
Lizzie Schebesta plays the young Vivie Warren, daughter of the play’s namesake and attributes the play’s enormous public appeal to three factors – Bernard Shaw, Helen Thompson (who plays the eponymous Mrs Warren) and the fact that it’s a period piece with decadent costumes. “I think people are really excited to see a period piece done in its time because there hasn’t been a lot of that recently,” she says.
Set in 1890, the story revolves around Vivie who is one of the first women in England to study at Cambridge; after she graduates, her mum wants her to move home and in the course of discussing this possibility, Vivie realises that her independent and comfortable lifestyle has been paid for by her mum’s rather ‘unorthodox’ profession. The play then spirals into a complex mix of questions about mother/daughter relationships, issues of class and privilege, and the forever-debated question of moral relativism.
For Schebesta, who came to theatre by the way of dance before realising what she really loved was dramatic expression, Shaw’s debate was the core joy of the play. “[He] has such compassion for both characters’ perspectives – that’s what I love.” Unfortunately she found the audience weren’t always so compassionate towards Vivie, a character who she had come to really admire. “I would get audience members afterwards saying ‘I really wanted to just slap your character across the face, I just hated her!’” she recalls, “and that was such a shock to me. I felt an obligation for me to go out into the audience each night and fight for my character.”
For all actors, but particularly young actors who are more often working in the independent scene, it’s a rare opportunity to have the opportunity to revisit a play after a short run. Normally the process is to rehearse in a flurry, perform as many shows you can, then move on to the next thing. “It’s exciting to return to it, because the process is so frenzied that half the time you’re just running on reserve energy,” says Schebesta. “It’s been really nice to step away from it for a bit and let it settle.” That being said, the team don’t have long to get back into the world of 1890s England as Schebesta admits, “we only have a week.”
With feminism on that national agenda, Shaw’s discussion about the limited options available to women seems disarmingly modern. By placing a strong mother and daughter on the stage, Mrs Warren’s Profession feels at odds with much of our cannon. For Schebesta, it was an opportunity to take on the sort of role that is normally reserved for young males in classic dramas. “She’s almost like a Hamlet…it’s not often that women play roles that are that opinionated. She doesn’t cry which is very rare for classical females and I found that really refreshing. As a person it made me a bit more outspoken – her persistence and audacity affected me.”
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