Mrs. Warren, the person of interest in George Bernard Shaw’s play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” is not quite what she appears to be. Neither is Suzanne Bertish, who takes on the role in the production going into previews at McCarter Theater on Friday, January 9, and opening on Friday, January 16.
There is many an English man and woman who would like nothing better than to trace their roots back to the Norman nobles who annexed England in 1066. But Bertish, even with her clipped British tones and definite (albeit friendly) no-nonsense attitude, would rather lay claim to the title of New Jersey girl. And she has a legitimate right to the appellation. Her mother’s mother was one of the prominent Kusers of Hamilton, and her great-uncle Friederich (Fritz) Kuser was the last family member to live at the homestead that is now, as the Kuser Farm Mansion, a museum open to the public. That is a startling revelation from a London-based actress who is so prominent on the English stage, has a deservedly high reputation as a prime interpreter of Shakespearean roles, and is best known to American audiences for her roles in the groundbreaking Royal Shakespeare Company 1981 production of “Nicholas Nickleby.”
“We would come to America on holidays,” Bertish says in an interview at McCarter before the day’s rehearsal started. “We used to stay with my Uncle Fritz at the Mansion. He was such a character. He had a great sense of humor — he lived for the movies. The family was at one point wealthy, and A.R. Kuser (Fritz’s uncle) financed William Fox, who started the Fox Movie Company. After that, they could have pre-release Fox films sent out to the farm. They had two Cinemascope projectors, and after dinner they’d show a movie. The kids would sit on the floor of the dining room to watch. I remember seeing ‘Cleopatra’ there.”
Heady stuff for the little British girl who would then go home and quickly and carefully lose the American accent she had acquired while playing with her cousins during vacation, lest she not fit in in London.
But then, she never completely fit in anyway. The daughter of a German-American mother, with some Irish thrown in, and a Jewish father, she grew up Catholic in England. Apparently, there were perks to that. “My mother ran an American home,” Bertish says. “Everyone loved coming to my house. It was much more informal. When I went to their houses it was tea in the nursery with Nannie. At our house, it was ‘Hi, Mrs. B,’ and when they opened our refrigerator, there was salad — no one ate salad in England. And there was chocolate cake and ice cream.”
Bertish was sent to the Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in London. No real deprivation there, either. “My father called it the Sacred Heart Country Club, because Harrod’s used to deliver boxes of fruit and jam twice a week. It was a comfortable life — when you are a kid, you aren’t really aware of outsider status. And when I arrived in New York to do ‘Nickleby,’ it was really weird, I felt completely comfortable there. And although I knew nothing about Judaism — my father didn’t practice — all the Jews there took me as their own. I felt very free in New York. More than any other city in the world, it embraces people from everywhere and anywhere.”
As she had in London, the then 27-year-old Bertish astonished New York audiences with her versatility in “Nicholas Nickleby,” playing three different parts — the grotesque Fanny Squeers, the glamorous Miss Snevellicci, and the ancient crone, Peg Sliderskew. In his book, “The Nicholas Nickleby Story,” Leon Rubin, the assistant director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, writes: “Suzanne Bertish is the only actress I know who, on stage, can look beautiful one moment and repulsive the next without any apparent effort.”
Bertish shrugs off the compliment. “I always knew I wasn’t going to be the standard ingenue. It’s weird that I’ve played Ophelia and Desdemona. The sad thing is that apart from some things like ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ and the ‘Moliere Comedies’ (her Tony-nominated performance), I really haven’t really done much character work. I would have liked to have done more. The bulk of my work has been done straight. But ingenue me? No.”
Bertish’s training was at a drama school in London, and before RSC, she spent three seasons with the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre in Scotland. “That was a real trip,” she says. “Amazing actors came out of there. My friend Tim Curry was the one who told me to go; in fact, the costume that he wore in `The Rocky Horror Show’ was the same costume he wore in the Glasgow Citizens production of Genet’s ‘The Maids.’ It was an outlandish, extraordinary, wonderful place for a young actor because they did the classics. I played the Duchess of Malfi, the Scottish lady, when I was 21 (it’s regret that I’ve never done it again); between 21 and 23, a huge range of classical roles. I played Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet. And they did things in a very stylish way, very theatrical. As Tim said, it was a chance to do fantastic stuff.”
She then went on to London’s venerable Old Vic, where she got the chance to play Ophelia opposite Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet in 1978. It was that performance that a young actor named Kenneth Branagh watched and decided that there might something to this theater business. “A rather frisky Ophelia,” Branagh later wrote, “The only previous event where I’d seen hundreds of people get that excited was at a football match.”
“I suppose that was the mad scene,” Bertish says matter-of-factly. “I don’t think I was particularly good. That scene was very sexual without being sexy; it was quite violent and horrific. Derek Jacobi was wonderful, but it was an appalling production — so old-fashioned. When I played Gertrude, years later, I worked out a whole back story for her, something you don’t normally do in Shakespeare, which, I think, has to be very specific, otherwise it just becomes wishy-washy, over-emotionalized gobbledygook.”
Bertish’s conversation confirms her fierce devotion to classical theater, something that she finds lacking in a lot of young British actors today. “I’m really moved by the dedication to the classical theater here (in America). There are all these young actors who want to do Shakespeare here. You don’t get that in England. You used to, but the young actors coming up will quite readily just go into TV and film, and then assume they can do a play, and do it, and not do it very well. I just taught recently at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London) and I hope to do more. What appalled me most, although I’m not surprised, is that most young actresses have terrible voices. You think, what are they teaching at dramatic school? But they don’t go into theater anymore; it’s not the ideal to get into the RSC anymore. It was when I did it.”
Surprisingly, after all these years of Shakespeare and Chekhov and Moliere, Bertish has never tackled Shaw before. Neither, for that matter, has McCarter’s artistic director Emily Mann, who is directing “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” The play deals with women’s limited choices in Victorian England, secrets between a mother and daughter, and moral judgments. Years earlier, Mrs. Warren made a choice that took her out of the drudgery and dead-end life of lower-class English girls, and gave her daughter a better life. But was it the right choice? And will her daughter, Vivie, who prides herself on her practicality, sympathize with Mrs. Warren? The answer may surprise you.
“She thinks she’s being a good mother,” says Bertish slowly, still thinking out the role, “But then every mother thinks that. It’s not dissimilar to Hamlet-Gertrude. Because of the way Vivie is, Mrs. Warren is forced to be real. She’s full of this — don’t be a fool, child, what do you know of men? That’s not connecting to someone, and Vivie makes her connect.”
In a climatic second act scene, the two women confront each other, and Mrs. Warren is forced to tell her daughter the truth of her circumstance. However, it’s not the whole truth. Says Bertish: “I don’t think she consciously withholds information. She’s quite in the moment, it’s not like she thinks ahead. I like her. I think she’s a big-hearted person, and she’s not been made bitter. She can be hard and she can be cold but she isn’t in her nature hard or cold. Vivie has a struggle going on; she has to do what she does to be independent. But I think they will reconnect further down the line, because there has been a moment of love between them.”
Shaw wrote the play in 1893, and its subject matter and sympathetic treatment of Mrs. Warren enraged the Victorians. The play was staged privately in 1902. The 1905 New York production was also greatly controversial, and it wasn’t until 1925 that a full-fledged production opened in London. Times have changed, but not completely. “I do think that a lot of the audience will be outraged with Mrs. Warren and judge her morally — especially here in Princeton, I should think,” Bertish says.
“Mrs. Warren Profession” is set in the late 1890s and lends itself to elaborate sets and elegant costumes. It’s a period piece, and that is something of which Bertish is well aware, and is passionate about. At this point of her life, with dozens of stage, television and film roles behind her, she wants what she does to mean something. “Anything set in period, one has got to try and make as immediate as possible,” she says. “It can be a barrier. You’ve got to break through that. I’m not interested in museum theater. When I first started, you would do everything and anything, but now, when we’re talking about theater, you can’t do something you don’t believe in. You’ve got to do something that resonates in the world today. It might be entertaining, it could be something lighthearted, but it must have a point. We’ve got a challenge on our hands, the arts do. You can draw people right in so that they lose themselves for two hours, so that it reverberates in them. Otherwise, you’re just watching it at one removed. And that’s pointless to me.”
Mrs. Warren’s Profession, McCarter Theater at the Berlind, 91 University Place. Previews start Friday, January 9; opening night is Friday, January 16, 8 p.m. Through Sunday, February 15. George Bernard Shaw’s classic about sex, money, and morality. Directed by Emily Mann. Actors include Suzanne Bertish, Robin Chadwick, Edward Hibbert, Madeleine Hutchins, Michael Izquierdo, and Rocco Sisto. $15 to $49. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.