Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Sam Pritchard
Reviewer: G. D. Mills
Sam Pritchard’s bold, experimental production of Pygmalion at the Oxford Playhouse finds innovative new ways to probe the themes of diction and class.
Professor Higgins, a phonetics expert, plucks a common flower girl from the streets of London and resolves, through close manipulation of speech, to make a lady of her. This experiment, for such it is, will be regarded a success if she can pass herself off as a duchess at a garden party.
The cobwebs are blown clean away from Shaw’s classic when we find ourselves, not in nineteenth-century drawing rooms, but in a state of the art recording studio, a hipster-Shoreditch flat and the streets of 21st century London.
The characters are also given a radical overhaul, too. In place of the stuffy professor Alex Beckett offers us a trendy, East London creative, replete with dyed blonde hair, baggy suit and Shavian beard, who flops across the stage with the casual, languid movements of someone who has all the time in the world. Natalie Gavin, meanwhile, gives us a street-wise, Bradford-born Eliza Doolittle – a scrawny, pasty-faced, slip of a girl with the swagger of an insolent and irascible teenager. Colonel Pickering (Raphael Sowole), in his camouflage and beany, looks better prepared for a battle rap than actual military operation.
Eliza Doolittle’s diction training takes place in a chic, hi-tech studio where, trapped in a vocal booth, her voice is sampled and manipulated and eventually, in one memorably comic scene, mixed into a techno-beat. In preparation for the final experiment she is decked out in middle-class attire and introduced into polite society, a scene which takes place in a vitrine, or a glass observation box, a directorial decision which further emphasises the experimental nature of Higgins’ enterprise. Eliza’s new found cut-glass diction is undermined by her working class colloquialisms. In Pritchard’s updated version, however, the famous line “Not bloody likely” becomes something altogether stronger – strong enough, at least, for it to be bleeped out.
In the preface to the play, Shaw noted that “a complete representation of the play is technically possible only on the cinema screen or on stages furnished with exceptionally elaborate machinery”. Headlong, a theatre company which prides itself on its experimental approach, takes him at his word and presents snatches of action as film projected across the front of the stage.
Doolittle’s transmogrification from impetuous little brat to graceful, silver-tongued socialite is genuinely remarkable, and so great credit must go to Natalie Gavin for affecting that chrysalis-like change. The question is, now that she is transformed, how can her life proceed? The alteration has gone beyond the merely superficial, so that a return to life as a mere flower girl would be an unbearable regression, while assimilation into the classes she has been taught to ape would be a deception. Offered at a time when social mobility is as fluid as it has ever been, this ultra-contemporary incarnation of Pygmalion shows that Shaw’s classic still holds the ability to engage.
Runs until 22 April 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan