Sarah Giles is about to make her main-stage-directing debut for the Sydney Theatre Company with a challenging play that was once banned, writes Linda Beattie.

Mrs Warren’s Profession, the third play in a volume entitled Plays Unpleasant by George Bernard Shaw, is now showing  at Wharf 1. Directed by Sydney Theatre Company’s (STC) newcomer, Sarah Giles, the play has a colourful past.

Shaw wrote Mrs Warren’s Profession after his first play, Widower’s Houses, created such a furore for depicting slums and rack-renting as dramatic material on the English stage that it closed after just a few performances.

He later wrote in the volume’s preface, “I had not achieved a success; but I had provoked an uproar; and the sensation was so agreeable that I resolved to try again.”

The result was Mrs Warren’s Profession, which he wrote in 1894. The play was both a scandal and a sensation, and immediately drew the censure of the Lord Chamberlain who banned it from public performance in Britain. The ban was not lifted for 28 years.

The play’s dramatic conflict centres on the tension between Mrs Warren and her scholarly daughter, Vivie, when she discovers that her expensive education was paid for by her mother’s unconventional profession: prostitution.

Sarah Giles, who is one of the STC’s three newly appointed co-resident directors, will be making her main stage directing debut with Shaw’s classic play. Giles has previously worked as assistant director for STC’s Tot Mom, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Optimism.

Theatre director Sarah Giles. Photo courtesy of Sydney Theatre Company.

When Giles read Mrs Warren’s Profession, she was struck by the relevance of the issues raised in it for today’s society, such as the limited choices available to women, especially when it comes to work and child-care and, the systematic flaws inherent in capitalism.

Giles points to the recent global financial crisis as an example of the mindset that made the global magnates super-rich while creating even more inequality for others.
She cites the chilling resonance of Shaw’s thesis that, “If on the large social scale we get what we call vice instead of what we call virtue it is simply because we are paying more for it.”

Sarah endorses Shaw’s view about the real reason the play was banned. “If Mrs Warren had died of syphilis the censor would not have raised an eyebrow,” she said. Giles also cites the hypocrisy of the church and landed gentry for condemning a practice from which they receive huge rents.

Her enthusiasm for the play led her to approach the then co-artistic directors, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, for its inclusion in the 2013 season. “Both Cate and Andrew were extremely excited about the play and its relevance to a contemporary audience, and I’m delighted to have been given the opportunity to direct it,” Giles said.

The issues raised, Giles says, are stronger than the moral relativism of Mrs Warren’s unorthodox profession.
“There is the question of class and privilege and what part our circumstances play in the choices we make in life.
“When Vivie tells her mother that she ‘doesn’t believe in circumstances, people should make their own circumstances,’ she is not only insensitive but shown to be just as conservative as her mother.
“It’s important to emphasise that the cause of tension between Mrs Warren and her daughter are their similarities not their differences,” said Giles.

With disarming candour, Giles comments on what she considers to be her own privileged background. “I am very aware that I wouldn’t be directing this play if my circumstances were not of a white, educated, middle-class young woman.”
“I don’t criticise Mrs Warren or Vivie, you can sympathise with both characters, they are, as they both affirm, a product of their circumstances.”

The 28-year-old director graduated from Melbourne University in 2008 with a double major in Italian and history.
She also holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in Dramatic Art, specialising in directing, from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).
In 2011, Giles was the STC’s Richard Wherrett Fellow and also awarded a Sydney Theatre Award for Best Director of an Independent Production: The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg.

Mrs Warren’s Profession, Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, February 14 – April 6.
The production will return to Wharf 1 from July 420, after touring Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong and Riverside Theatres.