Prostitution as a means of empowering women is a contentious notion even now, let alone in 1893 when MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION was written by Dublin-born social reformer George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote PYGMALION). No wonder it was banned from being performed in the UK by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (a power which the office had until 1968); and that Sydney Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Andrew Upton describes the play as a ‘very modern’ one.
The profession of Mrs Warren (beautifully played by a loud and blowsy Helen Thomson) is that of brothel owner, and it is a lucrative one that has allowed her personable daughter Vivie, recently graduated from college, to lead a comfortable life. To date anyway…
The play opens in a sunlight garden, the backdrop of which is a high, cream-coloured wall dappled with thousands of pink and red rose-like blooms, its idyllic summery atmosphere a tribute to the set design skills of Renee Mulder and the lighting expertise of Nigel Levings.
In this garden Vivie is studying her law books when the first of a succession of single men enters, a middle-aged chap called Praed (Simon Burke), who is a friend of Vivie’s mother. Before long they are joined by Mrs Warren and Sir George Crofts, a late middle-aged buffoon. Much banter ensues. And then Frank Gardner (Eamon Farren), the spendthrift son of the local rector (Drew Forsythe) arrives.
Frank initially comes across as a harmless Wodehousian fop but becomes increasingly obnoxious and irritating — and a good shot to boot — almost to the extent of hindering one’s enjoyment of the play. Thankfully he is offset by Vivie, played in a delightfully feminine way — albeit in a slightly bookish and stilted late Victorian manner — by Lizzie Schebesta. Sir George too is not what he initially seems, and reveals a calculating, black heart convincingly played by Martin Jacobs. Thanks to Vivie’s steely determination of purpose however, some morality is finally imposed on an immoral world in the closing scene.
Veering dangerously close to farce at stages — Vivie is romantically pursued by three of the four principal characters and the other has had a fling with her mother; while Vivie’s paternity is the source of much ribald speculation — there are plenty of laughs to be had, mainly before the interval. There are probably one or two too many lengthy monologues for the liking of some, but not enough to spoil a vivacious evening’s theatre directed with as light a hand as the script allows by Sarah Giles.
MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION opened at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1 Theatre on Tuesday 19th February and runs until Saturday 6th April. Due to popular demand there is a return season, at the same venue, between Thursday 4th and Saturday 20th July, 2013.