Police stormed New York's Garrick Theatre when maverick American actor Arnold Daly staged Mrs Warren's Profession, arresting its cast and crew because, they claimed, the play contravened obscenity laws.

Perhaps Daly shouldn't have been surprised; it was 1905 and the world wasn't as progressive as it is now — at least, that's what we like to tell ourselves.

The police had previously shut down a smaller upstate version of the production and in Britain, playwright George Bernard Shaw hadn't been able to stage it until 1902 — nine years after finishing it. Even then, it would be performed only in private clubs until 1925.

Why the fuss?


Because Mrs Warren's Profession talks openly about prostitution, as the eponymous madam, wealthy on the back of profits from a string of brothels, attempts to justify her career to her well-heeled daughter. Despite the fact her daughter, Vivie, has enjoyed wealth, privilege and a blue-chip education because of her mother's work, she is in no mood to see prostitution as a legitimate career choice.

Shaw argued that prostitution wasn't caused by moral failure but by a social order that left women little choice to enter the profession because of economic necessity. He dared to critique male privilege and the double standards.

It was — is — smart comedy and sharp social commentary but no one wanted it openly discussed in polite society.

The cast won't be arrested when Auckland Theatre Company opens its version of the once-scandalous play but, as star Jennifer Ward-Lealand points out, what's the worst thing you can call a woman?

If you really want to be insulting, tell her she's a whore.

Talk to Ward-Lealand, co-stars Karin McCracken (Vivie), Hadassah Grace (Liz) and director Eleanor Bishop and you can almost hear them shaking their heads at how little fundamental change there's been since 1905, despite the fact that prostitution was decriminalised in New Zealand in 2003.

"If you've ever done any sort of sex work, it's like a black mark against you," says Bishop, who talked to numerous people from all walks of life to gauge their take on prostitution in 2018.

She was disappointed, but not overly surprised, to hear stories of sex workers — current and former — who haven't dared tell their nearest and dearest what they do for a crust; the debates, played out in the media, when sex workers have been assaulted and complained about their treatment, and comments about women "asking for it".


Bishop, interested in taking a contemporary look at centuries-old questions of sexuality and empowerment, says like Shaw pointed out, prostitution isn't about morality but about capitalism and that means thinking about it in terms of bodily labour.

It's a view shared by McCracken, who says while she can appreciate Vivie's argument, she has a completely different take on sex work to the character she's playing.

"The more it's accepted in society as labour — work — the more it can be better regulated to make it safer for those who work in the industry. I believe the stigma that sex workers experience directly correlates with harm to all women."

Bishop says we rarely get to hear from sex workers and in her re-telling of Mrs Warren's Profession, she wanted to make their opinions heard.

Writer/performer and former sex worker Hadassah Grace has been cast as Mrs Warren's sister, Liz. The character is mentioned in the original script but given a voice in Bishop's version, and who better to do it than a person who's been a stripper and is now a vocal advocate for those working in the industry?

Grace was open about what she did because she was writing about it. She acknowledges the conversation with her parents, both musicians and writers, was tough but they accepted her choice and have been proud of the writing and campaigning she's done.

What she's learned about sex work is that it's just that — work.

"It's not glamorous or empowering or disempowering; it's just a job," says Grace, adding that being part of the production hasn't changed her perspective on sex work. "A lot of my character has been informed by my own choices and experiences."

The director of plays Body Double, Boys and Jane Doe, Bishop has set Mrs Warren's Profession in modern New Zealand — Coromandel, no less — and wants audiences to consider the world of women, work and just how far we have, or haven't, come.

That's great news to Ward-Lealand, who says rehearsal room conversations are robust. The play, like all good ones, is like peeling the layers off an onion. What's being talked about isn't just women and work, but the relationship between mothers and daughters, intergenerational change, privilege and how we form opinions and judgments.

What's more, Mrs Warren actively enjoys her work.

"It might have been acceptable to Vivie if she had given it up, but Mrs Warren likes it and runs an extremely good business."

In a career spanning 35 years, Ward-Lealand says she's never rehearsed a play in the way they're doing with Mrs Warren's Profession. She likes to arrive at rehearsals with her lines pretty much learned, but here Ward-Lealand's kept her script in hand as every line is interrogated.

"We're really thinking about and asking, 'What's being said here?'"

What: Mrs Warren's Profession
Where and when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, May 1-16