In a bind… Helen Thomson and Lizzie Schebesta in Mrs Warren's Profession. Photo: Tamara Dean
According to director Sarah Giles, there is one thing shocking about the moral content of George Bernard Shaw's play Mrs Warren's Profession: how little things have changed for women since it was written.
''That you can still look at a play written 120 years ago and see that we're still paid less and still not treated equally is shocking,'' she says. ''You only have to look at the recent stories about the rise in applications for brothel work after the Newstart [Allowance] rules changed to see that women are still in the same bind.''
When Shaw began writing the play in 1893, the world's oldest profession was very much in the headlines.
In England, a campaign for the criminalisation of sex work and closure of brothels was coming to a head. An essay in the Pall Mall Gazette referred to prostitutes wandering London's back alleys like lost souls: ''Many, no doubt, who venture but a little way within the maze make their escape. But multitudes are swept irresistibly on and on to be destroyed in due season, to give place to others, who also will share their doom.''
It was into this atmosphere of moral panic that Shaw launched a play about a former prostitute-turned-successful brothel madam, Mrs Kitty Warren, who explains her career choices to her bluestocking daughter Vivie.
''I feel like Mrs Warren must be one of the first characters in literature who has been a prostitute who does not die on a bed of syphilis,'' Giles says.
''Shaw shows that the world isn't built for women and that there's no use pretending that it is. It's not made for women, it's made for men to profit.''
Mrs Warren's Profession was promptly banned by the lord chamberlain, who described the play as ''immoral and improper for the stage''. It was not performed until 1902 and then only in a private showing open to members of the Stage Society (and hence exempt from the ban against public performance).
Across the Atlantic, the play caused even more of a furore. Before its New York premiere in 1905, the Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock, threatened legal prosecution if the producer raised the curtain on this ''filthy product''.
Shaw responded sharply that ''Mrs Warren's Profession exists because libertines pay women well to be evil and often show them affection and respect, while pious people pay them infamously and drudge their bodies and souls to death at honest labour''.
After an out-of-town try-out in New Haven (which provoked the headline ''TOWN IN UPROAR!''), the play's New York opening resulted in the theatre's licence being revoked and arrest warrants issued for the entire company.
The New York Herald declared the play ''morally rotten. It defends immorality. It glorifies debauchery.''
Giles says the extreme reaction was because the upper-middle-class men represented on stage were the losers in a battle of ideas.
''Essentially he's saying how can we condemn prostitution if men are profiting from it,'' she says. ''If we don't give the working and poorer classes better opportunities, how can we judge them?''
Shaw's sidelining of male opinion is also reflected in the play's structure, Giles says.
''There are very few plays with two roles for women as meaty as this,'' she says. ''There are plays that purport to be about women - The Lulu Plays, or Strange Interlude - but actually they're more about the men around them.
''Here, the most exciting scenes in this play are between a woman and her daughter and they battle it out in the most extraordinarily loquacious language.''
Helen Thomson, who plays Mrs Warren, says some of the ''boys'' in the rehearsal room are ''miffed because their roles are nowhere near as meaty as ours''.
''Usually, we have to make something significant out of something that's insubstantial,'' she says. ''Here you don't have to do that.''
Lizzie Schebesta, who plays Mrs Warren's daughter, says: ''Because the men are very comfortable with the status quo in the play they remain two-dimensional, whereas the women desperately want change. They've got something to fight for.''
Giles says the Sydney Theatre Company production will not attempt to modernise or comment on the play.
''Setting it in its period instinctively felt right,'' she says. ''We are working in period costume because it's about restriction - for men and women. Corsets and bustles do something to you.''
She hopes the production will reflect Shaw's compassion and the brilliance of his argument.
''The symmetries are amazing. It's a world of double standards between what is acceptable for a man and what is acceptable for a woman - the absolute double standard that still exists today.''
Mrs Warren's Profession opens at the Sydney Theatre Company on February 19.