Thanks to the Lord Chamberlain, Mrs Warren's Profession marked a turning point in George Bernard Shaw's early career. Written in 1893/4, it was the third and last of his plays to air current social problems. But because it was banned until 1925, it prompted him to begin campaigning against theatre censorship - and writing the more romantic Arms and the Man.
The play is a mordant polemic against the male-dominated hypocritical society that might drive a woman into the oldest profession, enable her to flourish as a Madame if she has a head for business and then brand her as 'no better than she should be'.
Shaw certainly gives us a sorry parade of middle and upper class men who should know better. From the cynical young pup to his ineffectual clergyman father, from the vicious middle-aged aristocrat to the effete intellectual, there's no sympathetic male here.
By contrast, Mrs Warren and her daughter Vivie are more complex, and just as Vivie herself shifts from admiration to repulsion for her mother, so the playwright cleverly manipulates the feelings of his audience. Is Vivie an admirable hard-working modern woman or an unforgiving prig? Is her mother a feisty fighter and canny provider for her daughter or an amoral opportunist? Shaw argues both sides in the climactic final scene between mother and daughter, and there are no easy answers and no winners.
Twiggy Lawson and Hannah Yelland vividly fill the mother and daughter roles respectively and bring to life their difficult relationship. Lawson is as delicately lovely as ever, but her appearance belies the sort of stridency one would expect from an older, lapsed Eliza Doolittle. Yelland's lucid steely performance appears at first to represent the moral heart of the play, and it's to her credit that she convincingly allows our sympathy to waver.
Ryan Kiggell is suitably appealing and irritating by turn as Vivie's suitor, the clergyman's son, and Benedick Blythe's intellectual Mr Praed is the most sympathetic of the trio of men with possible 'professional' relations with Mrs Warren. Jeremy Clyde is just starting to enjoy playing the bounder Sir George Crofts and Mike Burnside's country clergyman makes something of an ineffectual and unsympathetic character.
Peter Hall's production (redirected by James Robert Carson after Hall's centenary mounting with Brenda Blethyn in the West End) is a curiously static affair, and though John Gunter's designs are evocative of both town and country, interminable scene changes make it hard for the actors to raise the temperature again.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Oxford Playhouse)