Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Jonas Cemm: Mrs Warren’s Profession

By | Published on Friday 5 July 2024

If you’re a fan of the work of George Bernard Shaw, then you’ll be pleased to hear about a production that will be gracing more than one London stage this summer. If you’re not a fan, I expect it’s because you haven’t yet been exposed to any of his myriad excellent plays, so it feels like a good time for you to take one in. 

Coming to both Jack Studio Theatre and the Tabard Theatre this month is Shaw2020’s latest production, of ‘Mrs Warren’s Profession’, which was banned when first produced because of its controversial themes. 

I wanted to find out more about this production, as well as the company behind it. So I spoke to Shaw2020’s Jonas Cemm, who directs and appears in this staging. 

CM: For those who aren’t familiar with the play, can you tell us about ‘Mrs Warren’s Profession’? Who is it about and where does the narrative take us?
JC:Mrs Warren’s Profession’ is a controversial play written by George Bernard Shaw in 1893. Banned from performance by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, it wasn’t performed until 1902 at a private theatre club.

Then, in 1905, it opened in New York, the first time the play had been performed on a public stage. The performance ended early when the police arrived to arrest the company members for putting on an “indecent play”.

They were later released without charge. The first UK public performance wasn’t until 1925, 99 years ago on 27 Jul. 

The play delves into the complex relationship between a mother, Mrs Kitty Warren, and her daughter, Vivie, as they grapple with issues of morality, social expectations, the economic constraints faced by women in the Victorian era, and the hypocrisies surrounding the issue of prostitution.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
JC: There are many… women’s independence, social hypocrisy, economic inequality, the British class system, exploitation, love, sacrifice, and the expectations in relationships between mothers and daughters.

CM: What would you say is the central message – or messages – of the play?
JC: The play still challenges audiences to reconsider their assumptions about morality, respectability and the social structures that shape our lives. Shaw highlights the harsh economic realities that force individuals into morally questionable professions as a means of survival.

We’ve updated the timeline, delivering a fresh perspective to Shaw’s classic work by bringing the action forward slightly to the early 1930s. An era where women continued to struggle against a patriarchal, capitalist society, offset by a sense of Twentieth Century empowerment and war time independence on the horizon.

CM: What do you like about the play? How does it compare to other Bernard Shaw plays, in your opinion?
JC: It’s an intriguing play about relationships and it feels terribly modern. Some of the frank conversations in the piece are still extremely relevant. Shaw wrote over 50 plays and this one is most definitely in his top ten.

Written as part of a series he entitled ‘Plays Unpleasant’, they exposed injustices and social evils. He juxtaposed them against a series called ‘Plays Pleasant’, these were gentle comedies, predominantly about love, but still with that biting Shaw social satire.

CM: Can you tell us about your directorial approach to the play?
JC: Having trained as an actor – I am also performing in this production – my instincts have always been collaborative and I have been very fortunate to work with excellent colleagues who are willing to get under the skin of their roles.

I like to explore the relationships between all the characters in the plays I direct – it’s important that an audience see the varied personas a human has when they interact with different characters.

The mother-daughter relationship in this play is especially dynamic, working with Laura Fitzpatrick and Bethany Blake – the two leads – is fascinating.

When directing and indeed performing Bernard Shaw’s dialogue, I find attack is often my preferred method. There is a rhythm and life to Shaw’s text that needs to be performed, reading his work is great but when the pitch, pace and power of a speech is delivered just right, the words are lifted and some of his final speeches in plays can almost be performed as a spoken aria.

The character of Frank, Vivie’s “boyfriend”, is also interesting, wonderfully portrayed by actor Joe Sargent in this production. Frank is very reminiscent of some of the young feckless men of today. Both appreciative and resentful of the women they pursue. The independent woman intoxicates yet intimidates them.

More young people are becoming like Vivie Warren, less inclined to get married, less time to waste on selfish partners and with an emphasis on self-love first.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about SHAW2020, how and why it was set up and your role in it?
JC: We are an award-winning theatre company that explores the theatre and writings of Bernard Shaw, bringing his works – and those of his contemporaries and those he influenced – to a wider, more diverse audience.

We were winners of a London Pub Theatres Standing Ovation award in 2021, Best Show at the Birmingham Fringe Festival and an Offies finalist in 2022, for our production of Shaw’s ‘Village Wooing’. 

I am the company’s  Artistic Director and founder. I had been involved with the Shaw Society since 2017 and had begun to assemble some fine actors, some from within Shaw Society ranks, to perform readings of Shaw’s work and letters, at the Actors Centre in London.

From these small performances SHAW2020 was born: full productions began with a tour of ‘Arms And The Man’ in 2019, then the successful ‘Village Wooing’ tour over 2021/22. And now we are proud to be sponsored by the Shaw Society and to be performing at Shaw’s former home, National Trust property Shaw’s Corner, during our summer tour of ‘Mrs Warrens’ Profession’ in London and Hertfordshire.

The name SHAW2020 was influenced by the year Shaw’s work came out of copyright, 2020. The Shaw Society was established in 1941, much to Shaw’s annoyance, a charitable organisation dedicated to promoting the legacy and appreciation of George Bernard Shaw’s contributions to literature and theatre.

The collaboration between SHAW2020 and the Shaw Society underscores our commitment to keeping Shaw’s legacy alive and engaging modern audiences with the enduring themes embedded in his work.

CM: Do you have a favourite work by Bernard Shaw?
JC: This is my 25th Shavian production, as either, actor, director or editor. I find it quite difficult to choose a favourite, though ‘Heartbreak House’ is pretty special, Shaw’s answer to the Chekhovian style.

‘Pygmalion’, of course, is a fine play with a deep social conscience and I have enjoyed the three productions I have been involved with. It was fun, though exhausting, performing in ‘Saint Joan’, one of Shaw’s big beasts, with reams of dialogue and layered monologues.

Though I have to say, I think my favourite is the delicate, one hour, two-hander ‘Village Wooing’, where the characters are simply known as ‘A’ and ‘B’.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you come to be working in the theatre, was it what you always wanted to do? What steps did you take to build a career in it?
JC: Fulfilling an ambition I had had since childhood, I trained as an actor in my home town at The Birmingham Theatre School, then in London as a postgraduate at The Academy Drama School.

The actor’s life hasn’t always been an easy one, with so many theatre professionals graduating every year and not enough jobs, like most performers I have often found work in other industries to supplement the riskier creative income. Bars, restaurants, museums, galleries, shops and tourist attractions around London have all benefited from theatre professionals at some point. 

But I never lost the “dream” and persevered with auditions and applications through my twenties and early thirties, though my drive slowed down when the children came along: I have two daughters and I think my favourite role, ever, is Daddy!

Directing is a joy, I love working with actors and it certainly keeps my creative juices flowing. I also direct and co-write the annual pantomime at Campus West theatre, Welwyn Garden City.

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life thus far…?
JC: The first time I played a villain in panto was as Abanazer from ‘Aladdin’ in Clacton-on-Sea. I had a solo Elvis song and, during one pelvis-gyrating performance, between the screaming audience and the musically punctuated lighting, I felt like a rock-star… I have yet to emulate that feeling again on stage.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
JC: I believe the UK should have a National Shaw Theatre. With so many plays, themes and ideas to explore, a theatre such as this would be hard pressed to run out of material. I would like to be at ground level on such a venture.

It’s also been a while since a full length Shaw play has been adapted for film, this is something I would also like to achieve.

Plus, of course, a knockout role in a high end, plush TV drama or film would be great. Though I will concentrate on the Shavian world until Mr Spielberg comes calling.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
JC: After the tour is over it’s back to full time daddy-daycare for me. Until panto begins in November – it’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ this year.

Next year I have been asked to direct Coward’s ‘Present Laughter’ at the Attic theatre in Stratford Upon Avon, and I am sure there will also be another Shavian offering from SHAW2020.

Mrs Warren’s Profession’ will complete two runs in London this summer, at Jack Studio Theatre from 16-20 Jul, and at The Tabard Theatre from 7-9 Aug. 

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