"Written in 1893, banned until 1925", we are reminded in a projection onto a screen before Peter Hall's new production of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession, and lest we forget, again between every scene, as if the fact that this play was once suppressed should make it resonate all the more strongly now.
It may be the liveliest fact about the piece, but it's a largely inexplicable one, based on what we actually see in Hall's mostly stultifying production. In fact, played fast, hard and fierce (as it was a few years ago at the Lyric Hammersmith), this can be a highly charged modern morality play about hypocrisy and the challenges to a Cambridge-educated daughter's 'respectability' when she discovers that her posh lifestyle has been funded by her mother's exploits as a prostitute across Europe.
But in a lethargic, deliberate production like this, given a threadbare design by John Gunter, it turns into a dull costume drama in which the stakes seem no higher than that daughter's resistance to the two unsuitable suitors who make a claim on her. As played with eager bumptiousness by Laurence Fox and with dull entreaties by Richard Johnson, neither man stands a chance with Rebecca Hall's strident and independent Vivie Warren. (Fox and Hall are, respectively, the progeny of actor James Fox and this play's director, both making their West End debuts).
Nor does the wonderful Brenda Blethyn stand much of a chance, either, to stand out as Mrs Warren from the lethargic proceedings around her. Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave and now Blethyn are three fine actresses who in the last nine months have, in my opinion, found themselves hopelessly mired in a lazy Hall production, and it's been strangely fascinating to watch them each try to rise above it.
Blethyn makes an interesting choice to play Mrs Warren as a spiritual cousin of Eliza Doolittle from Shaw's Pygmalion (and coincidentally currently to be found around the corner from the Strand Theatre in Lerner and Loewe's musicalisation of it, My Fair Lady): someone who may have turned herself into a society duchess, but whose original accent keeps slipping back. She brings a fine, fierce passion and desperation to the final wounding confrontation with her daughter that almost single-handedly saves the production, but by then the life has seeped out of it.
"Sir Peter Hall's production is one of his best, beautifully designed by
John Gunter & featuring the brilliant Brenda Blethyn" - Michael Coveney, Daily Mail
"Peter Hall's revival is full of crackling dramatic energy & fine
performances. The production is spot on, especially in the terrific double
act between Brenda Blethyn in the title role & Rebecca Hall as Vivie" - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph
"FOUR stars....Brenda Blethyn is a stunning Mrs Warren in Peter Hall's excellent revival" - Michael Billington, Guardian