Mrs Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw
Auckland Theatre Company
Until May 16
George Bernard Shaw wrote his play Mrs Warren's Profession'more than a century ago in 1894 but it had to wait until 1925 for its first public performance, with the Lord Chamberlain banning the work because of its frank discussion of prostitution.
Mrs Warren (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) is the managing director of a flourishing business which runs brothels in major European cities such as Brussels and Paris. She has a business partner who has reaped huge rewards from the enterprise each year.
The business has allowed Mrs Warren to live an upper-class lifestyle, which includes funding her daughter Vivie (Karen McCracken) to attend university. Vivie has been unaware of just how Mrs Warren has been making her money all these years because she rarely sees her in person. Now that the two women have the chance to communicate, Mrs Warren is forced into explaining why she decided to choose her profession.
Shaw had set the play in late Victorian London but this ATC production is set in contemporary New Zealand
The work has been adapted by director Eleanor Bishop with the cast and also sees the addition of poetry and a “live performance “by the newly invented character of Liz, played by Hadassah Grace, who has previously worked in the sex industry.
The updated and adapted play is an attempt to confront the contemporary issues in the sex industry, which are still contentious even in an enlightened New Zealand where pragmaticism, exploitation and various notions of freedom and individuality are in conflict.
This update, however, lessens the impact of the work. We don’t get the same sense of shock that original audiences would have experienced. Shaw’s various dialogues and monologues that would have been seen within the context of woman’s suffrage now sound more like TED talks about the #Me Too movement.
Although the play’s theme is aspects of the sex industry there are strong strands about family and the relationships between parent and child
The main tensions exist between Vivie and her mother but there is also the Reverend Garner (Cameron Rhodes), a local preacher who hopes no one will discover his youthful flirtation with Mrs Warren, who has a tenuous relationship with his son, Frank (Jack Buchanan), who is hoping to marry Vivie, possibly for her mother’s wealth.
Then there is Sir George Crofts (Stephen Lovett), who is happy to be Mrs Warren’s silent partner but is more interested in seducing or marrying Vivie. Mr Praed (Tawanda Manyimo), is something of a foil for the other males, interested in art and beauty and having an uncomplicated friendship with Vivie.
The cast gives some impressive performances, with Jennifer Ward-Lealand creating a conflicted character balancing morals, business and concern for her daughter while Karen McCracken in the Everywoman role manages the confusion of encountering an unfamiliar set of morals and lifestyle, her voice capturing her inner turmoil. The three male characters who seem to be archetypes figures make the most of Shaw’s lines and create some great comic moments. The whole story has an added edgy dimension in that any (or none) of the male’s characters could in fact be Vivie’s father.
Hadassah Grace gives a powerful and intense performance of her poetry but this and her striptease seem oddly out of place within the production.
Shaw’s original play was earnest in its social and political ideas but the new version is just a bit too preachy and overly zealous. Possibly with even more culling of Shaw’s dialogue and eschewing the contemporary additions the play would have been more effective.
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