Mrs Warren's Profession
George Bernard Shaw
Review by Philip Fisher
George Bernard Shaw's plays can seem very dated but Sir Peter Hall's production of Mrs Warren's Profession proves that he also has a message for the 21st Century. A man who could write that "knowledge is power" in 1893 was arguably 100 years ahead of his time. The playwright described this as "a play for women" in his preface and he is undoubtedly correct, if only because none of his four male characters is more than a cipher.
By contrast, Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Warren, and yet another member of the dramatic Hall dynasty, daughter Rebecca as Vivvie, have wonderfully written, modern parts. Contemporary audiences will recognise these two types only too well.
This is a moral play but does explore both sides of the argument. It is not enough to be upright and sanctimonious if you have too little heart. However, the playwright's Socialist views also come to the fore as he attacks Capitalism. He makes it very clear that the love of money above all else is not to be countenanced and will lead to unhappiness.
His real target though is hypocrisy. It was fine for a man in Victoria's England to entertain himself as he chose but for a woman to profit from it is completely unacceptable. Shaw's view is clear as he roundly attacks the odious Sir George Crofts, a choleric performance from Richard Johnson. Kitty Warren had to drag her way out of the white lead factory somehow. A baronet should not sully himself and force women into semi-slavery just to get a 35% return.
The values of one hundred years ago are finely demonstrated by the banning of such a moral play for thirty-two years. Mrs Warren's profession, likened to that of a nurse, may have been a matter to be brushed under the carpet and it is not even named. Shaw was forced to have Vivvie write it down rather than allow sin to speak its name.
Peter Hall ensures that his actors use not only voice but body to realise their parts. This is very effective especially from Brenda Blethyn and Rebecca Hall who each give excellent performances balancing humour and pathos. In particular, Miss Blethyn excels when her smooth veneer disappears in a Cockney instant as Vivvie finally pushes her to white hot anger. Before that, she had sounded all too much like a Tory cabinet minister.
Sir Peter Hall is very prolific and doesn't always get it right. However this welcome revival is a great pleasure. We know that Brenda Blethyn is a splendid character actress. This production also introduces Rebecca Hall to the London stage, fresh from Cambridge, and shows that the latest Hall has a glittering stage career ahead.