Felicity Kendal, Mark Tandy, David Yelland, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Eric Carte, Max Bennett
When it was first performed in New York in 1905, George Bernard Shaw’s play. Mrs Warren’s Profession, caused so much outrage that the cast were arrested.
Over a century later, it’s a difficult play for different reasons. In a supposedly post-feminist world, where Belle du Jour and Pretty Woman portray prostitution not as a social stigma but as a route to sexual liberation, nice clothes and possibly even true love, it’s almost hard to see what the fuss is about.
For a play that touches on issues of social hypocrisy, feminism, capitalism, the importance of education and the dignity of work, it manages to cover serious topics with an admirably light touch.
While the humour takes a while to settle in (the first few minutes are remarkably flat), when it takes flight, the dialogue sparkles. At times, in fact, too much so, leaving people to speak in epigrams rather than emotions – but it has generally aged well and raises issues that still have resonance today.
Felicity Kendal is an accomplished stage actress and, while she occasionally veers into melodrama, she is utterly convincing as Mrs Warren, a charming, steely woman one who makes the men around her foolish and who is proud of her accomplishments and financial status (no matter what their source) but hasn’t thought through the consequences for her or her daughter. A generally sympathetic if unself-aware character, her argument that prostitution is in fact the smart choice for an attractive woman of limited economic options remains uncomfortably compelling even today.
As her intellectual, career-minded daughter Vivie whose ‘modern’ attitudes only stretch so far, Lucy Briggs-Owen is all prickly blue stocking, while as her ‘posh but dim’ suitor Frank, Max Bennett brings plenty of comedy but not enough dramatic weight – you never for one moment believe their relationship is truly important, so the threat of it failing lacks emotional clout. Eric Carte, David Yelland and Mark Tandy lend solid support as the other men in Mrs Warren’s orbit; respectively, the clergyman with a morally-compromised past, the oily investor with designs on her daughter and a kindly but ineffectual artist.
Michael Rudman’s direction is sprightly, though the too-regular curtain breaks are annoying and distracting; designer Paul Rudman’s set is beautiful and expensive looking, but the production would have benefitted more from a simpler design and less thumb-twiddling while waiting for a scenery change.
Overall, though, this an entertaining and thought provoking evening. Despite its age, in its examination of women’s place in society, hypocrisy and money, Mrs Warren’s Profession feels as relevant as ever.