A subversive comic drama and an earnest comment box

Everyone has a double identity in Bernard Shaw’s play. So does the Gate’s new production

Mrs Warren's Profession
Gate Theatre, Dublin

In so far as the “fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman” would ever let it happen, Mrs Warren’s profession here stands entirely exposed.

The backdrop for the Gate’s new production of George Bernard Shaw’s 1893 play is a sepia collage of erotica: photographic evidence of the world’s oldest profession lensed through the ages, and, more insightfully, an indication of all the women on the periphery of this disputation on liberty, capitalism and morality.

Initially, we also see a legend projected neatly on Francis O’Connor’s sparing set: “It is amazing how the grossest abuses thrive on their reputation for being old unhappy, far-off things in an age of imaginary progress.”

That is Shaw literally having the last word (it is the final line of his preface), and it spells out director Patrick Mason’s agenda, which is laudable but excessive. Stressing its artifice removes the play from the safe distance of a costume drama, but Mason underlines its contemporary relevance with such emphasis and frequency you actually suspect he doubts it.

Take the inclusion of Shaw himself, whose commentary is broadcast over the scene changes like a DVD extra, explaining (in a decent impression by Risteárd Cooper) the play’s intentions, its original censorious reception, and a moral hypocrisy that leaves prostitution undisturbed.

Fair enough; but that’s already exhaustively present in the dialogue of the play and the additions feel hectoring.

Curiously, the tone of performance is quite separate, where Sorcha Cusack and Rebecca O'Mara are wholly invested in the roles of Warren and her daughter Vivie while staying alive to the combative ideologies they embody.

This is a play of pretence and hypocrisy. Vivie’s education and independence has been unwittingly subsidised by the exploitation of women; David Yelland’s appealingly saturnine pillar of society, Sir George Crofts, is actually Mrs Warren’s business partner; Bosco Hogan’s cagey Reverend is a sham; and Tadhg Murphy’s mischievous trilling suitor Frank is undeterred by the fact that he may be pursuing his half-sister. With its own design and performance style quite discrete, now the production itself has a dual identity.

Cusack’s warmly impressive Warren, “a good sort, but a bad lot” as Frank puts it, effortlessly finds the character’s truth in a defiantly unsentimental play. “Women have to pretend to feel a great deal that they don’t feel,” she says, although that’s true of everybody here.

Vivie, a model of individualism, may accept her mother’s argument for prostitution over the ruin of factory work, but she can’t maintain that compromise.

Like her, the production finds it hard to reconcile its two competing identities, the subversive costume drama and the earnest comment box. Long before the Warrens decide to part, it has gone its separate ways.
Until May 18th