Helen Thomson, Martin Jacobs and Lizzie Schebesta (Pic: Brett Boardman)

As a friend recently reflected (if not in so many words), what a relief it is to sometimes take in a play that requires no mental gymnastics. Before, during or after. George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession, from Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, is a straight-ahead play.

Never heard of it? Don’t beat yourself up. Or be afraid to admit it. It’s not one of his better-known ones. It was director Sarah Giles, then Richard Wherrett Fellow with STC, who brought it to the attention of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton on the basis of her and Shaw having something in common: an abiding interest in getting up close and personal with women’s roles in society. It was cast, or partly so, almost as soon as Giles’ had gently twisted the artistic directors’ arms to program it. Helen Thomson sprang to mind for the role of Mrs Kitty Warren.

Avid or even occasional readers may be aware of my almost wholesale aversion to accents, unless done exceptionally well and absolutely necessary to the execution of a play. Here, for the most part, they are executed expertly and are certainly appropriate. This is, after all, an English comedy of manners; though it goes a good deal deeper than that. Ironically, the only member of this excellent cast that loses the plot on her accent (quite Eliza Doolittle, at times, which may be a nod to Pygmalion) is Thomson, who often sounds broadly Australian. Of course, given her profession (reviled in upper crust circles in Shaw’s time, if not still) of brothel-keeper, making her one of those coarse Aussies is quite fitting, from a British viewpoint.

Excellent cast? I’ll say. Lizzie Schebesta makes for a feisty, whip-smart, independently-minded Vivie (Warren); a young woman of the sort, I imagine, any self-possessed young woman, of any era, might like to look up to, or become. Simon Burke is revelatory, in his finest form ever, superbly nuanced, as Praed, aesthete and loyal friend to Kitty, Vivie and Frank (Gardner), played to annoying, obnoxious perfection by Eamon Farren. Martin Jacobs is a crusty, bombastic Sir George Crofts and Drew Forsythe, a dithering, stammering, tic-ridden Reverend Samuel Gardner. Of any, it’s Forsythe might be said to lapse into something of a cliched caricature of a vicar, but it still works a treat, in the context of this work.

Renee Mulder’s design is almost fragrantly beautiful, dominated by a high “wall” (a mere curtain, in reality) adorned with a pink blanket of climbing roses. Suddenly, we’re transported back to the mother country and its pastoral pleasures. Even Tanya Leach’s stage management is a thing of beauty, props are moved about and the set rearranged with seamless ease.

Shaw’s script, of course, excavates the gross hypocrisy that pervaded high society then (and now). But, behind the scenes, he was quick to point out what he believed was a misconception. Shaw said he wrote the play:

“… to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to it to keep body and soul together.”

This perspective ensures a great deal of sympathy for Kitty, a self-made woman if ever there was one, albeit having achieved that status through “ill-begotten” means. A compelling facet of the play is Vivie’s reaction on learning of her mother’s lot in life. Though she clearly regards herself as a sophisticated thinker and an educated woman, even after her initial shock, she retains a prejudicial contempt, even disgust, for Kitty, despite the fact it’s Kitty’s “dirty” money that’s bought her a pristine schooling. Kitty may’ve started in the bonking business of necessity, but has no shame (nor should she) in declaring the independence it’s now bought her.

Ironically, it’s the bonking business that’s indirectly bought same to Vivie; in truth, it’s served to emancipate them both. Of course, this was more than a little too much for the prudes of the Victorian era and it was banned, for a decade after its completion, in 1893. In fact, it’s first performance was in small-town New Haven, Connecticut, of all places. Note, performance. Singular. It was closed after a single showing, being various derided by critics and coppers as ‘ boring’, ‘revolting’, indecent’ and ‘nauseating’, among other unflattering descriptions.

Mrs Warren’s Profession shows Shaw to be the feminist and socialist he was; a courageous man, ahead of his time, principled in his stands against a corrupt and hypocritical society. It’s not just good writing, but good thinking. And I do mean good. In every sense. He seemed, to me, an individual prepared to take his own advice, expressed through one of his characters:

“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”

Better yet, Giles, cast and crew have brought all these qualities roundly to the fore.

The details: Mrs Warren’s Profession plays the Wharf 1 theatre until April 6. Tickets on the STC website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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