Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Anthony Banks
Of all Bernard Shaw’s works, it seems that Mrs Warren’s Profession is the most regularly performed, and its defence of sex work is as pertinent today as it must have been when it was written in 1893. The play wasn’t banned for 30 odd years because of its frank discussion of prostitution, but because Mrs Warren remains unrepentant. This new production starring Caroline Quentin and her daughter Rose Quentin is a little old-fashioned but Shaw’s moral dilemmas are as intriguing as ever.
Quentin perhaps signposts Mrs Warren’s humble beginnings a little too crudely. Her “oh dearies” come from the music hall while some of her facial expressions are borrowed from Mollie Sugden. But if she betrays Mrs Warren’s working class origins too early, she nevertheless exudes charm and her playful manner is the reason that Mrs Warren has her followers in the form of Mr Praed and Sir George Crofts: her playful manner – and her money, of course. It’s a shame that some of this playfulness is exchanged for shouting in the final act.
Rose Quentin is Vivie, Mrs Warren’s daughter, who slowly learns how her mother makes her living, and how that money has paid for her fancy Newnham College education where she studied mathematics. Vivie is a New Woman, a kind of early feminist who challenged gender roles by wearing trousers, smoking and, most famously in the cartoons of the day, riding bicycles. Vivie has a strong handshake, too, that all the male characters try to avoid.
Occasionally Rose Quentin’s delivery is a tad robotic as her lines are hurried with no pauses, not even for an intake of breath. Her Vivie is undoubtedly unflappable but it’s odd not to see even the slightest reaction when she discovers her mother’s occupation and thus her own precarious position in the world. Vivie wants to be independent and forge a career of her own but just doesn’t see how faithfully she is following in her mother’s footsteps. Rose Quentin’s Vivie is headstrong but naive.
Shaw’s support of sex work in a society that underpays and under-educates women is pretty convincing, but only in one chilling moment when Mrs Warren is at her most persuasive do we get the hint that not all her ‘employees’ may be working entirely of their own free will. It would be interesting to see a version of the play set in the present day to see reflect on the current arguments surrounding sex work and exploitation. But even this production, stuck very much in Victorian times, still sparks enough debate especially when Vivie makes her final decision.
For a touring company the set is immaculate and much in keeping with Shaw’s detailed stage directions and Mrs Warren’s tiny country houses receives plenty of laughs. David Woodhead’s design is redolent of English summers and quiet villages, a suitable facade concealing the struggles of women in world of inequality that the industrial revolution produced. Shaw’s plays are inescapably talky, but although well-performed by all of its cast, this Mrs Warren is a little too talky and lacks some nuance and energy.
Runs until 26 November 2022 and then continues to tour