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Mrs Warren’s Profession 

by on 23 November 2022

Quid Pro Quo

Mrs Warren’s Profession 

by George Bernard Shaw

Theatre Royal Bath Productions at Richmond Theatre until 26th November, then on tour until 8th April

Review by Eleanor Lewis

Eleven years after the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 first allowed women the right to their own property, George Bernard Shaw wrote Mrs Warren’s Profession.  This was a play in which a woman works her way out of abject poverty via prostitution, earns enough to educate her daughter and ultimately becomes wealthy running a string of international brothels, with the additional investment aid of her aristocratic friend and his wider circle.  Unsurprisingly, in 1894, the play was banned by the Lord Chamberlain on the grounds of what was deemed to be inappropriate discussion of prostitution.  Prostitution was merely the pivot around which the rest of the system turned though and what Shaw revealed in his witty and unsentimental work was the grubby framework of a society in which women were bought and sold into work or marriage beneath a veneer of social acceptability, and to whom nothing else was available.

The current production of Mrs Warren’s Profession at Richmond, stars Caroline Quentin and her daughter Rose Quentin as Mrs Warren and her daughter Vivie and it is totally engaging.  Director Anthony Banks has moved the action to the ‘20s and designer David Woodhead has created an ironically twee set which includes a Wendy-house sized country villa into which the characters must fit themselves, and a church and churchyard which can only be entered by some serious bending down to get under the very low lychgate.  An echo perhaps of the constraints of domesticity and the compromises people had to make to slot themselves into polite society.  A washing line, hung with female underwear decorates the villa’s garden – possibly flying the flag for what’s to come (the bra-burning ‘60s being only 40 years ahead).

The issues driving the action are whether or not Vivie, who does not condemn her mother for the route she took out of poverty, can accept her continuing to run an international wealth-generating business based on the exploitation of fellow women, and can she also accommodate the expectations her mother has of her?  Vivie, despite her education and her potential wealth, is still female and therefore commodified by everyone who comes into contact with her.  Mrs Warren loves her daughter, but nonetheless wants a return on her investment in the form of a guarantee: Vivie will look after her as she approaches old age.  There are two suitors pursuing Vivie: Sir George Crofts wants a trophy wife, i.e. he wants to buy her; Frank, a younger man of whom she is fond, wants a leisurely life funded by the security of her mother’s wealth.  Vivie wants independence and all the freedom and choice that goes with it, which Mrs Warren, who has learned to successfully work the system we now call the patriarchy, cannot accept, as she says:

“If people arrange the world that way for women, there’s no good pretending it’s arranged the other way.”

Although she’s a dominant presence on stage, Caroline Quentin is ably matched by her daughter Rose, as Vivie.  Mrs Warren is a force of nature but her expensively educated daughter Vivie is an equally confident, self-possessed woman.  Both women, from different starting points, have developed similar strength of character.  Both performances are razor-sharp and communicate the respective positions of each woman perfectly clearly.  Vivie’s poignant coming to terms with her situation and that she is largely on her own, a new woman in a new world is perhaps the forerunner of Shaw’s more famous Eliza Dolittle some years later when she asks Prof Higgins “what have you left me fit for?”

Both central characters are surrounded by a reassuringly good supporting cast.  Simon Shephard plays the rogue George Crofts in such a way that you can find things to like about him.  Peter Losasso is a thoroughly endearing yet ruthless Frank, and Stephen Rahman-Hughes as the reasonable but ineffectual Praed together with Matthew Cottle as the non-vocational, snobbish-but-entertaining clergyman Gardner.  All serve to illustrate the complacency and disrepair into which the system has fallen and provide reasons why the injection of a few “difficult women” will be a good idea. 

In 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson slashed the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery as a means of gaining attention for her cause and also because she apparently took exception to the way male visitors looked at it.  She was probably unaware of the inspiration she was providing for soup-wielding protestors of a different type 100 years later, but you can see her point.  Mrs Warren’s Profession is highly entertaining, timely and well worth seeing.

Eleanor Lewis, November 2022

Photography by Pamela Raith

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