Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Sam Pritchard
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Pygmalion must be one of Bernard Shaw’s most popular plays. First produced in 1913, it tells the story of professor of linguistics, Henry Higgins and his tutelage of streetwise flower-girl, Eliza. Headlong Theatre has taken Shaw’s text and transplanted it into a world of technology as they ask if class is still the defining factor in life that Shaw painted it as in 1913.
After a chance encounter in which Higgins transcribes Eliza’s common speech for his research, Eliza turns up at his home asking for lessons so she can speak better and maybe work in a flower shop. Higgins, a somewhat unpleasant character and confirmed bachelor, makes a bet with fellow linguist Colonel Pickering that he can teach Eliza to speak and act like a lady and pass her off as such at the Ambassador’s garden party in six months. While he wins the bet, what is now to become of Eliza, displaced from her roots and Higgins, who has come to rely on her to organise his days?
Headlong have taken a somewhat Brechtian approach to make the point that we are all acting all of the time: the sides of the set are clearly visible with much normally hidden backstage activity on view. As one enters, the main set is hidden by a large screen which is used several times for projections or video inserts as the set changes location.
Director Sam Pritchard has taken pains to show us just how the way we speak can serve to place us in society. The opening scene, where we meet the Eynsford-Hills, Eliza, Higgins and Pickering, purports to use audio recorded in auditions with the actors miming to the different voices and accents presented. This sets the scene for the radical and experimental version to follow.
The main set, in Higgins’ home, is cavernous and filled with recording equipment that he delights in using to demonstrate the niceties of his craft. When we go to Higgins’ mother’s, a glass room appears, constraining the action and fixing each of us in our own little bubble.
But for all its gimmickry, this production really shines when Shaw’s dialogue is allowed to flow unhindered. The witty exchanges sound contemporary even while using what now sounds like archaic language. The scene at Mrs Higgins’ at-home is superb as the emptiness of these characters’ lives is laid bare; the final scene in which Eliza, now a ‘lady’, turns on Higgins leaving him bereft is quite delicious; Higgins’ attempts at what would now probably be called ‘mansplaining’ as he teaches Eliza would be very uncomfortable were it not for his total self-belief.
At the centre are the performances of Natalie Gavin and Alex Beckett as Eliza and Higgins respectively. Beckett relishes in bringing out the thoroughly boorish and unpleasant sides of Higgins’ character – it is only in the dying seconds that he becomes sympathetic and then it hits one hard. His treatment of Eliza is truly awful and yet he is blind to that, believing himself to be her saviour. A tour de force performance. Gavin is similarly assured as Eliza. She is a forerunner of the feminist movement even as Higgins treats her as little more than a doll. She is a woman who knows her own goals and ideals and works towards them – albeit unsure what to do once they seem to be achieved. We are rooting for this feisty woman from the start.
The supporting cast provides some light relief from the social message implicit in Higgins’ and Eliza’s exchanges. Raphael Sowole’s Pickering is a humanising figure alongside Higgins, truly treating Eliza as Higgins claims to – as an equal. Gavi Singh Chera’s Freddie is suitably wet in his admiration for Eliza. Ian Burfield’s blustering Alfred Doolittle and his story echo that of Eliza’s as he laments what he has become. Liza Sadovy’s Mrs Higgins is gloriously plain speaking as she stands up to the monster she presumably created in Higgins.
An interesting production, one with sharply observed characterisations and one which still rings true today, but one can’t help thinking it tries too hard be self-aware and to draw its parallels between theatre and our daily performances.
Runs until 3 March 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan