Written in 1893 and first performed in London in 1902, George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession is a quintessential examination of social conditions, poverty and economics. Fast-forward to 2018 (after many iterations around the globe) and Auckland Theatre Company presents a fascinating adaptation of the classic.
Under the helm of Eleanor Bishop, the play is set on the glistening beaches of the Coromandel where we find ourselves caught up in the family drama of a young professional woman who must come to terms with the “questionable” source of her family’s wealth. Loosely following the original plot, this version is laced with colloquial flavour and focuses the drama on the very real and important issues of stigma associated with sex and sex work.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand is excellent in the titular role; her performance shows both the determination and strength of a successful CEO, as well as the vulnerability of a spurned mother. Karin McCraken, as her daughter Vivie, is a strong supporting lead as the naïve, self-righteous and occasionally angst-driven law graduate. However, like many of the other characters in this version, she seems poorly equipped to understand the relationship between the politics of prostitution and capitalism.
Stephen Lovatt, Cameron Rhodes, Jack Buchanan and Tawanda Manyimo all add depth and dimension to the play in their various roles but the stand out is Hadassah Grace, a writer and former sex worker. Portraying Mrs Warren’s sister Liz, Grace’s own spoken word poetry cuts through the fat of the text to offer a searing and powerful commentary.
The irony is that a middle-class play performed on a middle-class stage to a largely middle-class audience is given its moment of truth and authenticity by including a voice that is strikingly “real”— and this choice alone provides both a compelling insight into how the work wants to address the questions it raises.
The aesthetic choices bend the traditional norms of the theatre, drawing the audience into the play’s intimacy by narrowing down a long sunny stage to a small and intense mirrored world. The lighting and sound effects are excessive and the repetition of these sequences does little for narrative continuity.
Reverberating with the effects of the Industrial Revolution, Mrs Warren’s Profession is rife with particular historical social and political issues. In an effort to translate Shaw’s work into a contemporary postmodernist drama, Bishop and her team have undertaken a mammoth task and this production should be commended for raising, if not resolving, provocative commentary on these issues.