Can Shaw’s play, written in 1893 by a man who had grown up in a Victorian world where married women had not yet acquired the right even to keep their own earnings, let alone vote, still have anything to say to the liberated women of today?
Paul Milton (Director) has put together a classic period production. Especially in his early works, George Bernard Shaw left little room for directorial innovation; his descriptions of character, personality, appearance, manner, movement and scenery are specified in precise detail in his famously lengthy stage directions. The clear and sharp-focused Everyman production respects this tradition faithfully, allowing Shaw’s script to speak for itself through the exquisitely perfect performances; however, the design works subtly through costume, setting and lighting to underline the development of the dramatic narrative.
As the play opens, the stage is a garden adorned in colourful floral profusion: life is indeed a bed of roses both for Vivie, who has such a positive image of herself as a successful independent modern young woman (unwittingly living on her mother’s immoral earnings); and also for her mother, Kitty, who has for so long justified to herself her financial success as a multiple bordello owner. The opening scene sees Vivie dressed in green, underlining her naivete, fresh from her Cambridge studies; whereas her mother is dressed in happy floral pinks, with her leg of mutton sleeves subtly depicting her as mutton dressed as lamb as she can’t help flirting with her daughter’s boyfriend.
Shaw’s genius lies in bringing together Ibsen’s ability to explore and wrestle with a moral dilemma, Wilde’s incisive humour and epigrammatic wit, with his own socio-political rhetoric to create a compelling intellectual and emotional drama. Mrs Warren’s Profession is one of the plays in which he achieves a perfect balance between these elements. Through Vivie, he tussles with the issues of exploitation of women, especially of working class women; the extent to which the women (and men) at different levels of society have any choices; and the moral differences between making personal choices and choices which exploit others with fewer choices. Vivie’s attitude to her mother see-saws dramatically as the facts of the case are gradually revealed. As the play progresses, Mrs Warren appears in bright red as she is revealed as a “scarlet woman”, and finally in black, when Vivie has finally decided to reject her and the evil she believes her mother represents.
So, does the play still have relevance for us today? Surprisingly, what looks at first sight like a different world, throws up all sorts of contemporary resonances. Working class women are still exploited – think zero-hours contracts, pay gaps, minimum vs living wage here in the UK, or far worse conditions overseas. There is no sign that human trafficking will end any time soon.
When Shaw’s play was written, it was so controversial that it could not be performed in public. At least we can discuss these matters more openly today. However, the hypocrisy and passive connivance with exploitation Shaw deplores are still as widespread today: for instance, how many people who decry exploitation of low-paid workers nonetheless continue to buy the low-cost garments they manufacture? How many would turn a blind eye to the morality of their investment if it brought a guaranteed return of 35%? The sad truth is that, at the end of the play, Vivie is alone: she is the only one determined to take a moral stand.