Ally Lodge reviews ‘Mrs Warren’s Profession’, Venue 1, St Andrews, 22 February 2012
In trying to persuade my boyfriend to come with me to the recent Mermaids production of Mrs Warren’s Profession, our conversation went like this: ‘Do you want to come and see Mrs Warren’s Profession with me?’ – ‘What’s her profession?’ – ‘Brothel owner’ – ‘Sign me up’.
Prostitution and brothels are still taboo subjects to this day, and so naturally they have that seductive appeal that spreads interest. My own reasons for wanting to see the play came more from this being my first opportunity to see a George Bernard Shaw play in performance (My Fair Lady sadly cannot count). Mrs Warren’s Profession was written in 1893, although it did not receive its first public performance until 1925. It follows Vivie Warren’s discovery that her frequently-absent mother made her fortune from running a series of high-class brothels across Europe. Vivie, a snobbish, selfish, career-obsessed woman, is ultimately unable to reconcile herself to her mother’s profession, despite Mrs Warren’s heartfelt attempts to justify it.
Giving prostitution a voice was the play’s key controversy in Shaw’s time. ‘Originally banned from the London stage’ are the glaringly scandal-filled words which open the synopsis of this St Andrews production, directed by Emily Bray. Unfortunately the implied scandal has gone somewhat astray in 2012. The play may still deal with issues that are familiar to a twenty-first century audience, but this familiarity is rather stifled in the traditional approach to Shaw’s play. With the set, original script and costumes (including some distasteful dresses) firmly planting the play in its own time, there is no trace of the play’s original controversy. Apart from some anachronistic fairy lights in the garden sets and the Mediterranean café-style seating arrangements in the audience, there was little that lent the play a more contemporary touch.
With regards to the acting, the cast of six did a good job, although not outstanding. More charisma across the board would not have gone amiss, as sometimes it felt as though the actors failed to entirely command the space they were in. Emma Taylor gave the stand-out performance as Mrs Warren; luckily the strongest actor was fittingly matched to the strongest character. Both Taylor and Gino Di Castri (who played the Reverend Gardner) should be particularly commended for their adept handling of the rather unfortunate set malfunction of the collapsing wall, with Di Castri playing up to the humour of the situation and both actors staying in character as they attempted to fix it while continuing the scene.
When the set was intact, it was adequate for the production. The fairy lights, while very pretty, were a strange addition to the garden sets and gave more of A Midsummer Night’s Dream feel, which does not seem terribly fitting to Shaw. The ivy-covered walls in the interior of Chancery Lane were again slightly puzzling, but perhaps they just did not remove the ivy for fear of more walls collapsing. Otherwise, the set was perfectly functional.
What the play wanted, overall, was just a touch more imagination and a touch more professionalism.
Image credit – Benoit Grogan-Avignon