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A CurtainUp Review

Prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, under-valuing and over-working women.
-- George Bernard Shaw in his preface to Mrs Warren's Profession.

Her mother is impossible. She may be a good sort but she is a bad lot.
-- Frank
I was listening on the radio to Dr Joy Brown advising a woman who was earning twenty times as much by working as a stripper as she could in more "respectable" employment. The issues that George Bernard Shaw raises in his interesting "secrets and lies" early play (only his third) Mrs Warren's Profession are as relevant today as they were more than a century ago. Even today for too many women, careers in the sex industry offer a lifestyle of luxury far in excess of anything they could expect from other work. But this is not simply the matter of Shaw's play. It is also about the relationship between mother and daughter when the daughter has been raised in an affluent and educated environment which in turn can cause her to despise her own mother, whose efforts have paid for that education. It is about control and disaffection.

Shaw, who was famously a Fabian Socialist also looks at the hypocrisy of society, the ethics of capitalism where all riches are perceived to be the result of exploitation. He examines the role played by men. . Each of his male characters are representative of a type: the aesthete and artist Mr Praed (Peter Blythe), the feckless young man Frank Gardner (Laurence Fox), the unscrupulous capitalist, Sir George Crofts (Richard Johnson) and the hypocritical vicar, Reverend Samuel Gardner (James Saxon). These male characters are both a strength of the play and its weakness. Shaw's perception of Victorian society draws all these men as caricatures and all of them are nasty.

The women however, are more complex. Vivi (Rebecca Hall) is a blue stocking, imbued with a work ethos in her ambition to earn a living as an actuary. She lacks an interest in culture and the arts. Her mother Mrs Warren (the splendid Brenda Blethyn) is full of contradictions: victim and exploiter, kind hearted but manipulative and embarrassingly vulgar.

Mrs Warren has never disclosed to her Cambridge graduate daughter Vivi who Vivi's father is and how she earns her money. At a cathartic stay at her mother's house, Vivi is told that her mother is a member of the "oldest profession". Mrs Warren's confession, "All we had was our appearance and our turn for pleasing men" is met with a sympathetic hearing from her daughter. Sixty year old Sir George Crofts proposes marriage to twenty one year old Vivi offering her financial security, which is based on his investment in, and profits from, the Euro-wide brothels, managed by Mrs Warren. The vicar's son, Frank Gardner is interested in Vivi for her money to pay his gambling debts. The vicar himself may be Vivi's father. When Vivi realises the extent of the brothel corporate culture that has paid for her education, she coldly rejects her mother and in an hysterical final scene where Mrs Warren condemns morality as the instrument of repression of the common people, mother and daughter are permanently estranged.

Brenda Blethyn is a joy onstage. Splendid in a claret outfit with a large, feathered, overly decorated hat, she is the picture of the self made Victorian matron. She varies from mock refinement but with bad grammar to full fishwife gutter throttle when incensed. She cajoles and pleads and when that fails, gets abusive. Her fruity delivery has such a variety of tone and comic pausing, it is impossible to dislike her. This likeability coupled with the initial priggishness of Vivi gives the play a more delicate balance than maybe GBS intended. I wonder whether both Mrs Warren, and Richard Johnson as Sir George, are meant to be more unpleasant than their affability suggests.

Rebecca Hall started nervously, she is relatively inexperienced onstage, but her performance gained in strength in her solo scenes with Blethyn and by the end of the play, she was much more accomplished. I couldn't believe in Laurence Fox's geeky, rather benign interpretation of the wastrel Frank and his skinny, lankiness makes him an unlikely physical candidate as the son of the short, rotund, Boz cartoon like Reverend Gardner.

I was not entirely convinced by Shaw's premise that Vivi would have been initially so understanding of her mother's solution to her youthful, financial predicament. That seems to me the reaction of a mature and detached person who decries social injustice, someone like er . . . Shaw himself. This especially as Vivi is revealed to be so industrious and so uncompromisingly disinterested in culture, society, in social graces and flirting. She is very austere in her ambition. I am also unsure that those like Vivi, who have had "everything provided for them" tend to be obsessed with earning money. Vivi reveals her Cambridge Tripos result was because she studied hard in order to win a &#pound;50 wager. In my experience it is generally those brought up in deprivation, like Mrs Warren herself, who strive for a healthy bank balance. Ah, but a more spoilt Vivi would be more like the daughter Mrs Warren wants her to be. How perverse can our children be!

It is interesting to discuss why Vivi subsequently rejects her mother. Is it because Mrs Warren's profession is ongoing and no longer strictly necessitated by economic need? Is it because she has exploited so many other girls, the successful, capitalist tart who goes into management? Is it because Mrs Warren seems to condone Sir George's proposal of marriage to Vivi, knowing that Sir George's money is tainted? Would marrying Sir George in view of their age difference be a kind of prostitution? Sir George's defence of the source of his wealth is to implicate all Victorian wealth made from profits from unsavoury factories with subsistence wages.

The set designer, presumably at the request of the director, has made much play of the fact that Mrs Warren's Profession was banned from public performance for almost three decades until 1925, with good use of projected quotations between scene changes. The programme, exceptionally informative for Peter Hall's productions, explains some of the history of stage censorship in England. The garden set is a curious mix of projected slide of South Downs in a rectangle above a white picketed fence, tree and pergola, giving an unsatisfactory collage effect. The indoor sets seem to be similarly under-financed and convey neither Victorian opulence nor solid mahogany office furniture.

I do hope that audiences will flock to see Mrs Warren's Profession for in the capable hands of director Peter Hall and with the delight of Brenda Blethyn it is an enjoyable and stimulating evening in the theatre and not at all didactic or stuffy.

Overview of GBS

Mrs Warren's Profession
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Peter Hall

Starring: Brenda Blethyn
With: Rebecca Hall, Peter Blythe, Richard Johnson, Laurence Fox, James Saxon.
Designer: John Gunter
Lighting Designer: Hartley T A Kemp
Running time: Two hours twenty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 901 3356
Booking to 18th January 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 11th October 2002 performance at the Strand Theatre, Aldwych, London WC2 (Tube Station: Charing Cross)
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