The Lord Chancellor from 1893 until 1925 censored George Bernard Shaw’s play “Mrs Warren’s Profession”. The James Gazette wrote of the play “The tendency of the play is wholly evil. It contains one of the boldest and most specious defences of an immoral life for women that as ever been penned.”
Well that may have been true back then, but for today’s audience it will not raise much of an outcry. Today’s theatre audience may feel some distaste for Mrs Warren’s profession, but none are likely to believe that society will collapse because of it. Shaw raises, what for his day were daring questions about the role of women, marriage and prostitution? Why is it acceptable for a woman to marry for money and yet not acceptable for a woman to prostitute herself for the same reason? Why is poverty considered virtuous when one considers the squalor, disease and early death it often brings?
Mrs Warren, played by Brenda Blethyn, raises her daughter Vivie within respectable society so that she can be a well-educated young woman who can find happiness within society. Whilst this would seem the wish of any loving mother for her daughter in Mrs Warrens case such a wish can lead to nothing but heartache and expose her own hypocrisy.
Mrs Warren escaped the poverty trap that convention had laid down for her as an uneducated working class woman through prostitution. Hating the hypocrisy of a society that would rather see a working girl starve than be successful, she remains unapologetic for her lifestyle. Vivie therefore is forced to make a decision between upholding society morals or accepting her mother’s money?
Brenda Blethyn seems either to be miscast or misdirected for the role of Mrs Warren. She portrays the character in the same vein throughout the play, a cross between self-pity and indignation. Whether she is asking for her daughter’s love or defending her profession, her manner - more plaintif then stalwart - remains the same throughout. It is hard to picture her as a hard-nosed madam of a brothel; surely such a person would be less histrionic. However, she does bring humour to the character, especially when she deepens her cockney accent under stress, thus betraying her characters common background.
Rebecca Hall is excellent as Vivie, a determined young woman who wishes to be a successful lawyer and with no time for sentiment and other silly ‘womanly’ virtues. She expresses the anger and resentment with those around her with a controlled passion that makes her rebukes all the more biting. Richard Johnson is delightful as Sir George, but sadly too much so. There is too little lechery and too much charm in his ridiculous attempts to woo Vivie.
Laurence Fox as Frank Gardner, the young man who wishes to marry Vivie for her money, has wonderful comic timing, however he portrays the character as too much of a dandy. Such an insubstantial person would only be a constant source of irritation to the pragmatic Vivie and not the friend and confident she at first mistakes him to be.
The costumes are lavish, and Mrs Warren’s violet-feathered hat looks exuberant and perfect for this high-spirited woman, but sadly the set design is dreadful. It appears to have been designed on a very limited budget. Pictures of a village parish church and of the countryside projected onto a couple of white panels and a few pieces of patio furniture hardly seem fitting for the production. What was Peter Hall thinking of?
A delightful comic drama that improves as the evening draws on, and although Brenda Blethyn appears miscast she is a delight to watch on stage.
Next review by Richard Mallette
Despite the precipitate decline of George Bernard Shaw’s reputation from the heights he enjoyed for the better part of last century, Mrs Warren’s Profession maintains its fascination. The subject matter appeals to current audiences who see it as a protest against Victorian hypocrisy about sex and money. We also like to think the play forecasts our own wonderfully enlightened attitudes toward the societal oppression of women. Faced in her youth with a choice between degrading poverty leading to near-certain early death or the economic freedom of prostitution, Mrs Warren opted for what she now avers is the more comfortable life, one that has led to her current role as a madam in an international brothel chain. Her daughter Vivie, the beneficiary of her mother’s prosperity, has been Cambridge-educated and can therefore now earn a living in Chancery Lane. But in the course of the play Vivie rejects her mother’s ongoing profiteering from the misery of prostitution. And so which of these characters, the play forces us to ask, is the heroine: the mother who chooses survival over poverty, or the daughter who renounces her mother’s corrupt profession? Shaw never makes the alternatives of his dilemmas clearly distinguishable. Peter Hall’s new production approaches Shaw’s iconoclasm by making none of the characters especially appealing, except possibly Mrs Warren herself, whom Brenda Blethyn plays with solid working-class charm. Blethyn will doubtless keep audiences applauding Mrs Warren’s prophetic-seeming defiance of bourgeois sexual convention, even though she is faced with her own daughter’s disapproval and rejection. Mrs Warren seems to voice the contempt we now heap so readily on the Victorians, especially for what we take to be their fear of women’s sexuality. And Blethyn plays the part with zeal. She seems to speak for all women who have been shackled by poverty, sanctimony, and sexual double standards. She’s plainspoken, amusing, and, from time to time, winningly cockney. Blethyn provides Mrs Warren with the good sense of her lowly origins, her earthy London vowels ringing arch bemusement at the folly and pieties of her betters. Hall has decided to capitalise on Blethyn’s recent film celebrity by giving us a Mrs Warren whom no one can help liking, even when Shaw throws some doubt on the matter.
For the script makes something of a case that Mrs Warren’s daughter Vivie is worth attending to. She is the figure who chooses work over love, the one who decides that a woman is best freed from her chains to men by finding a (legitimate) career for herself without the constraints of sex and marriage. But the director sees to it that the audience for this production will cheer on Blethyn’s Mrs Warren and all but cold-shoulder her chilly daughter. Rebecca Hall plays Vivie with a prim stiffness that makes her slightly less than amiable, in fact a bit self-righteous and unknowingly conventional. On the other hand, Shaw makes clear that all have sold themselves, or are willing to sell themselves, to the highest bidder. We have, then, no nineteenth-century love story here. Our young male lead, Frank Gardner, wants to marry Vivie for the financial security she would bring him, as his clergyman father, who has taken orders for the same reason, advises him. Laurence Fox plays Frank as a rather smarmy twit and a bit of a fop, full of self-satisfied sneering at his elders. Those older former lovers of Mrs Warren are equally venal and duplicitous, the actors taking delight in playing them as nasty codgers. All are keen to hide the sexual secrets of their pasts and the economic secrets of their present prosperity. Shaw shuns sentimentality, and indeed he saw himself as following in Ibsen’s footsteps by trying to shock his contemporaries. All the characters, in varying degrees, are morally empty and self-deceived.
Despite his Ibsenite impulses to chastise his audiences, however, Shaw wrote a rather anaemic play, and Hall’s production, for better or worse, lives up to it. A play about the effects of prostitution needs to have some recognition of the imperatives of the flesh, yet here we have little sense of human instincts. The characters are curiously unfeeling, even when they talk about money, to say nothing of their dispassion about sex. The scenes between Frank and Vivie have scant emotion, least of all when the subject of incest is awkwardly raised (and dropped). When Vivie trumpets the doctrine of work over love, she issues pronouncements consistent with the playwright’s manifesto, but not with much convincing sense of a woman’s challenges. Each of the characters stands for a moral perspective, even if that perspective is lashed by Shavian reversals and ironies. The result is a play with little sense of felt life. We have instead exchanges of non-experienced and unanimated ideas. When the dialogue rises to liveliness, whether between would-be lovers or parents and children, it quickly drains itself of blood. Hall has followed where Shaw has led. The sets are deliberately unconvincing, almost defiantly cheesy, a mock-Victorian doll’s house-and-garden, tarted up with huge photo backdrops of the Surrey environs. The characters move about them almost as figures in a self-conscious period piece, drawing attention to the artificialities of the play they’re acting in and the ideas they’re meant to defend. But it’s a dispiriting exercise, for the play is too moralising to convince us of its theatrical authenticity. The actors can do little more than walk bravely through Shaw’s tangles of ethical and social paradox.
(Richard Mallette )
BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Uneven production."; MICHAEL BILINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Excellent revival....Brenda Blethyn...a stunning Mrs Warren" NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Enjoyable, comically buoyant interpretation." He goes on to say, "Brenda Blethyn: a comic pleasure, but self-pitying rather than impassioned." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Richard Johnson, as a wealthy old baronet, is alone in being both convincing and entertaining." JONATHAN GIBBS for TIME OUT says, "Uninspired production." PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "Brenda Blethyn continues her progress from strength to strength with a wonderfully rounded performance in the title role."
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