Mrs Warren's Profession
George Bernard Shaw
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
The play opens onto an elegant country garden, where Vivie Warren (Emily Woodward) is waiting for her mother to return home.
Mrs Warren (Sue Holderness, Marlene in Only Fools and Horses) and her daughter rarely see each other owing to the demands of her mother’s business affairs but Vivie has been lovingly and carefully nurtured and educated to a level where she is able to lead an independent and relatively affluent life; there is no acrimony between them.
Quite the reverse, in fact. Vivie is more than appreciative of her mother’s generosity although she has no knowledge of how her mother actually earns her wealth beyond the fact that, in partnership with her friend Sir George Crofts (Christopher Timothy of All Creatures great and Small), she has control of a number of overseas properties from which she derives a more than comfortable income.
As well as Sir George, Vivie is to meet Mr Praed (Christopher Bowen) of whom Shaw wrote, "the sentimental artist (fool that I was not to make him a theatre critic instead of an architect)" and young Frank (Ryan Saunders). Mrs Warren has a lot of male friends. Her female ones, if she has any, are not mentioned.
A convivial, if rather small, party then. There is witty dialogue (this is Shaw, after all) to keep us amused and interested and much exaggerated nursing of bruised fingers after the men have shaken hands with forceful Vivie.
And with much speculation, among both cast and audience, concerning her paternity.
It is only in the second half, when we meet Frank’s father, the Rev Samuel Gardner (Ryan Saunders), that Vivie comes to realise the full extent of her mother’s progress from humble and shameful beginnings to her present degree of respectability and affluence.
Ah yes, those bruised fingers, symbolically showing how Vivie has shunned femininity, so essential to Mrs Warren’s way of life, in favour of independence and, hopefully, eventual equality.
And, really, that’s what this play is all about, isn’t it? In the preface to Mrs Warren’s Profession, written in 1894—incidentally just a year before Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest was first produced to critical acclaim—Shaw explains his motives in writing it: to draw attention, not just to the inequalities of income and status between men and women, but to testify to the hypocrisy of influential men and the terrible fate of poor women who have, often at that time, no other means of feeding their children without recourse to selling their own bodies.
But it’s one thing to write a play to stir people’s consciences, quite another to have it performed, and so Shaw came up against the Lord Chamberlain who branded it as "immoral and otherwise improper for the stage".
It would be another thirty years before it appeared on a London stage.
So thank goodness for Shaw’s stand for feminism and for women’s education and enfranchisement, particularly in Salisbury, where Millicent Fawcett did so much for the suffragist cause (we’ll forgive them for having her husband’s statue in the market square instead of hers).
A fine performance then. And if you’re wondering why the cast all appear in the programme mounted in gilt frames, well, they deserve them. In this production they have given us, not just entertainment, but an insight into a piece of our comparatively recent history which we would do well to think about. Especially the men.
Reviewer: Anne Hill