Last spring I happened to see Rebecca Hall give a really rather fine performance as Martha in a student production of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? The character's several remarks about how powerful her daddy is and how nobody had better get on his wrong side generated much knowing laughter from those who had spotted the actress's own father, Peter Hall, in the audience. Hall père now furnishes Hall fille with her West End début in his revival of Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession at the Strand.
This may or may not be the essence of nepotism, but the fact is that Rebecca Hall's ability justifies it. Despite the play's title, its protagonist is Mrs Warren's daughter Vivie: a very Shavian heroine, both forthright and independent in her thought and ramrod-backed in her morals, trying to come to terms with the sudden revelation that her privileged upbringing and Cambridge education were paid for by her mother running a chain of high-class brothels across Europe, and furthermore that her young suitor may be her half-brother. (Indeed, in a play about young people owing their status, or not, to family "achievements", the casting may be deliberately ironic: the company also includes a son of actor James Fox and a grandson of film director John Huston.)
Shaw's point is of course that the capitalistic society which so exalts "the gospel of getting on" – and even such as Vivie, who prides herself on being unsentimental – balks hypocritically when that doctrine is carried into certain taboo areas. However, being an early work by G.B.S. (although kept off the public London stage for a third of a century after its 1893 completion by the prudery of the Lord Chamberlain's office), its dialectics are less indulged, more tempered by actual drama and indeed simple comedy.
Peter Hall recognises this, and directs with a perceptible though not overpowering air of artificiality and self-consciousness. Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Warren is a case slightly apart: Blethyn simply has such an instinct for this particular comic-dramatic register that she breezes through it effortlessly, her character's partial gentility of accent dissipating into broad East Endisms at moments of stress. Among the other five players, though, it is Rebecca Hall as Vivie who is most assured in finding the slight, but only slight, unreality of manner required by this staging. Her similitude of vocal cadence wears a little thin by the final scene, but for the most part she admirably embodies the characteristics of Shaw's more thoughtful heroines: at once brash and wry, yet letting her flaw sneak through unnoticed until it rebounds upon her.
Of the remaining characters, Richard Johnson plays slightly more broadly than is his custom as ageing roué Sir Gerald Crofts; Peter Blythe is a visibly fey Mr Praed, who leaves one in little doubt why he can be so sure of not being Vivie's father; and Laurence Fox as Vivie's possibly incestuous suitor Frank Gardner plays to the hilt the indulgent childishnesses of his character, such that he seems more a precocious adolescent than an affected young man. The common thread is that the actors have fun in their portrayals, but follow the grain of the play rather than wallowing in post-modern campery. Peter Hall concentrates on the tone of the drama to carry the authorial argument contained within it, and his own daughter is the most conspicuous example of the success of this approach. As with her director brother Edward, we shall see more of Rebecca Hall, irrespective of her powerful daddy.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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