George Bernard Shaw wrote his play 'Mrs Warren's Profession' more than a century ago in 1894. Because of its subject matter – prostitution – censorship prevented the play being performed in public for about 30 years. Censorship might now be a dim and distant memory, but prostitution certainly isn't. So the theme is still relevant. The question we have to ask is whether the play says anything meaningful to modern audiences.
Though this play has a cast of 6, it really focuses on the relationship between Mrs Warren and her daughter, Vivie. Mrs Warren is the managing director of a flourishing business which runs brothels in major European cities such as Brussels. The business profits are huge, rewarding the major investor with 35% interest a year. It allows Mrs Warren to live a lifestyle that even the upper classes of the time would have fund hard to maintain. And it has also provided the funds for Mrs Warren's daughter Vivie to attend university, take her maths degree and provide her with the means of making a good living on her own account. But Vivie has been unaware of just how Mrs Warren has been making her money all these years, because she rarely sees her in person. Now that the two women have the chance to communicate, Mrs Warren is forced into explaining why she decided to chose her 'profession'.
Director Michael Rudman takes no risks with the historical setting, leaving it in what seems to be the late Victorian era. That doesn't appear unreasonable given the date when it was written. However, there are lengthy scene changes which try one's patience, and the various settings are not so significantly different to justify waiting unduly. In fact, the set was rather ordinary and a little disappointing given the high standard we've come to expect these days.
Felicity Kendal is in good form as Mrs Warren giving us a confident and jovial business woman who, forced into giving explanations for her line of work, is able to make her case forcibly, arousing our sympathy. Sparks begin to fly when she's discussing her profession with daughter Vivie (Lucie Briggs Owen), producing real tension and emotion. The support is good, though unexceptional. Max Bennett's Frank is rather too ebullient and cheeky, and his excessive references to his father as 'the governor' quickly became irritating. However, to be fair, Shaw has to bear the brunt of those faults.
It's pretty obvious that Shaw's sympathies lay with women who had little choice but to earn their living by prostitution. Shaw blamed economic conditions and capitalism as the main causes. But the ending of this play seems to me an odd choice. The last word rests not with Mrs Warren but with her daughter Vivie whose view of prostitution seems to maintain the hypocritical attitude of society at the time, and indeed of our time. If Shaw had in mind to change opinions, a very different ending was required.
Watchable and interesting from a historical perspective, and brave for its time, our views about morality have changed significantly, making 'Mrs Warren's Profession' seem rather tame and quaint.
"Rudman’s revival has the energy to keep you engrossed. That, in spite of a questionable performance or two."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
"Even if the play’s joints creak, it contains moments of power."
Henry Hitchings's for The Evening Standard
"A combination of Shavian verbosity and disappointing acting limits the show, alas."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Looks somewhat heavy-handed now."
Heather Neill for The Stage
External links to full reviews from popular press