Felicity Kendal: Convincing as a rich madame in Shaw's "Mrs Warren's Profession"
New productions are often interesting, but it is sometimes tempting to go instead to old plays that have survived the test of time, particularly if they are not often staged. At the moment, there are five such major productions in London. The most recent is Tennessee Williams's Spring Storm, written 73 years ago, and the oldest is Dion Boucicault's comedy, London Assurance, first produced in 1841. In between are Eugene O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon (1920), Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard (1926) and George Bernard Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession of 1893.
It is surprising how contemporary they seem. The language, particularly, feels modern, though perhaps no dramatist would these days name a character Lady Gay Spanker, the gloriously eccentric hunting aristocrat played by Fiona Shaw in London Assurance. All these productions are superbly acted, sumptuously produced and (apart from the O'Neill) are both funny and witty at times. All hold the audience's attention and are playing to packed houses. Perhaps it is too much to expect them all to be great plays. However, all are in their different ways very good.
Boucicault is a name that even devoted theatregoers may not know, yet he was for almost 50 years the most important man of the theatre — playwright, actor, director, producer and innovator — on both sides of the Atlantic. London Assurance, his first play, was a smash hit in 1841, and one can imagine why, even with jaded hindsight. It is a lush romantic farce with plenty of funny lines and genteel slapstick, in which an ageing London exquisite ventures into the countryside to marry a rich young girl, only to be ensnared by a complicated plot and the preposterous Lady Gay Spanker. Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw extract the last scintilla of comedy from their roles, with obvious pleasure. But even they cannot make it much more than a delightfully slick bit of froth, if froth can be slick.
Froth is not a word associated with G. B. Shaw. His talent is usually weighed down by his didactic urges. But even though Mrs Warren's Profession was written to instruct a censorious public that women were forced into prostitution not by depravity but by poverty, the play is remarkably free of the curse of Shaw. For once, he manages to transform his moral message into characters with surprisingly complex, shifting and convincing feelings, without abandoning the best of his wit. Mrs Warren is the rich co-owner of a string of brothels, having as a fallen woman risen from terrible poverty. Her clever daughter, Vivie, educated with her mother's ill-gotten gains, knows nothing of this. In the course of the play they are forced to understand each other, and themselves, in a very touching process of self-revelation. Felicity Kendal was entirely convincing as the unrepentant rich madame — glamorous, bossy and faux-genteel — and Lucy Briggs-Owen was excellent as her priggish, intellectual daughter struggling with contradictory feelings. The play may not be great but it is one of Shaw's best.