Mrs Warren’s Profession is the oldest profession. And the extraordinary Irish polymath George Bernard Shaw uses it to explore issues of exploitation, power and money. As an Irish man, Shaw knew firsthand what it was like to be a member of an oppressed people, Ireland being England’s oldest colony. There are to this day Irish ‘red legs’ in North East Barbados who were forcibly transported there by Cromwell in 1655 as indentured labourers. And witnessing his alcoholic father’s abuse of his mother turned him into a lifelong champion of the fight for women’s rights. So he is both anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal. Or to put it positively he is a voice for Irish independence and women’s liberation. Shaw wants to connect the power dynamics of personal relationships with societal dynamics. He uses one to highlight the other and vice versa. That’s what makes all of his plays so endlessly fascinating. He is a writer with something to say and he says it with real force. He wants to rock the boat. He wants to change the world. So I was thrilled to get the chance to review this production at Richmond Theatre.
The unique selling point of this show is obviously the mother-and-daughter double act of Caroline and Rose Quentin. That’s both because they are both highly regarded actors in their own right but also because they are playing mother and daughter in Mrs Warren’s Profession. Caroline plays Mrs Warren and Rose plays her daughter Vivie Warren. This adds an intriguing double layer of complexity. I think this alone is proving a box office draw. And so it should because they are both very watchable and knowing they are real-life mum and daughter adds a real frisson to the experience. There was a full house in Richmond last night – a real buzz in the foyer and bar and Felicity Kendall was spotted in the stalls. A real theatre occasion in that sense. So this is a play well worth seeing.
The play focuses on the relationship between Mrs Kitty Warren a middle-aged managing director of a chain of European brothels and her daughter Vivie. Kitty has used her money to give Vivie the best education money can buy. Vivie has been to boarding school and Cambridge University. However, she doesn’t know where her mother’s money comes from. So, in the great set piece of Act 1, Kitty tells her story. She explains that poverty and no education meant she faced a life of drudgery in a factory with her health and looks spoilt by age 30. So, she decided to monetise her body and gain her independence by selling her body at X £’s a minute. Then she saved and became a manager. Caroline Quentin delivers these crucial lines with real feeling. She is obviously trying to justify herself to her daughter but also, she expresses Shaw’s beliefs about the impossible situation poorer women, especially those with young children, face. Now Shaw goes further and really puts the cat amongst the pigeons. He has Kitty make two arguments. First, that young women who conform and accept low pay and ill health are mere dupes. Second that all women who make a marriage based on money are no different from her. These are obviously incendiary arguments and extremely controversial.
During the second act, we see Vivie’s reaction to her mother’s revelation unfold. Vivie is what was known in the 1890s as a ‘new woman’. The first generation of women to leave home and attend university and get a degree. She has many of the telltale signs of a new woman. She has a bone-crushing handshake, wears culottes and trousers, walks barefoot, makes the first move in lovemaking, has a degree in maths and above all smokes. Smoking was the revolutionary act par excellence for women in the 1890s. Rose Quentin carries off all of the above with panache and supreme self-confidence.
The finale pits these two versions of womanhood head to head in an epic mother-daughter clash of Lear-like intensity. Kitty representing the monetisation of the body and Vivie representing the monetisation of the brain. It’s the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. We watch with mounting anxiety and tension as these two forces personal and historical – the traditional and the modern – battle it out for moral and psychological supremacy. It’s gripping, visceral and intensely moving.
Even after a hundred years, Mrs Warren’s Profession is still a wonderful play and this production is extremely watchable.
Review by John O’Brien
George Bernard Shaw’s acid test of a mother-daughter relationship is one of his wittiest and most provocative plays. Written in 1894 but banned for thirty years by a Lord Chamberlain who found it “immoral and improper”, Mrs Warren’s Profession is a ripe attack on English hypocrisy and its “fashionable morality”.
What is Mrs Warren’s profession?
Mrs Warren’s daughter Vivie has never really known much about her mother. A sensible young woman, she has enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, a Cambridge education, a generous monthly allowance and now has ambitions to go into Law. Is it conceivable that her privilege and respectability has been financed from the profits of the world’s oldest profession? How will Vivie react when she finds out the startling truth about her mother’s business empire and that freedom comes at an emotional price?
Tue 22 Nov – Sat 26 Nov 2022