Mrs Warren’s Profession was way ahead of his time – written by George Bernard Shaw in 1893, it was initially banned for the stage, and didn’t debut until nine years later.
In Auckland Theatre Company’s production, a stellar cast (headlined by Jennifer Ward-Lealand) and talented creatives (led by Director Eleanor Bishop, known for deconstructing classic dramatic texts) promised so much. However, as sometimes happens, even the finest ingredients do not a delectable dish deliver.
It starts well enough; the characters are introduced as a motley mixture of posh and privileged versus various hangers-on, reprobates and Dickensian dastards.
The set is modern and boxy, cleverly representing an expensive if slightly vulgar Kiwi bach. Designed by Tracy Grant Lord, the mirrored walls skillfully open up the set and are also reminiscent of a bordello/strip club.
Despite the expanse of space that the set affords, there is a lack of free movement during much of the dialogue – as if the idea was that standing starkly still would give the words more gravitas, but its belaboured and just weighs down the dialogue. The cast seem unnecessarily constrained within the boxes of the set, which results in a lack of interaction and emotion. We wonder whether the disconnect is heightened by the distance of the set from the audience. Maybe having it closer, rather than being set so far back, would have allowed the audience to feel part of the on stage antics rather than being distant voyeurs.
The reveal of Mrs Warren’s profession to her daughter should be dramatic and traumatic. However, this pivotal moment is curiously void of shock value and drama despite our eager anticipation.
A number of questionable directorial choices include a Max Headroom-esque stutter of the dialogue, with accompanying dramatic lighting effects. This could have been an incredible device had it reinterpreted the text differently each time. If that was the intention it really didn’t come through. This was a shame because a Sliding Doors-esque’ treatment could have presented opposing viewpoints of these vital moral issues very effectively.
This play is timely. It attempts to expand on Shaw’s prescient commentary on feminism, exploitation and the plight or power of sex workers. However, the lack of conviction with which these edicts are delivered diminish these messages. Ultimately the effect is repetitive, rather than evoking empathy and understanding.
The stellar cast, many of whom are our favourite NZ actors, worked valiantly to keep up the pace of the show, but alas, we felt like we were hemmed into two very long halves.
We were sad to see a number of empty seats after the interval and some people looking at their watches, because this talented team have such potential to make this production timely, triumphant, relevant and important.
In short Mrs Warren may have a profession, but it needs more work.
Mrs Warren’s Profession plays at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 16 May.