Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Sam Pritchard
Reviewer: Kris Hallett
Is the sign of a truly great play one that can be flexible enough to take the concepts hoisted on it by a director and reveal something hitherto unrevealed to its audience in the meantime? This is the question one came out of watching Headlong Theatre’s Pygmalion, playing in Bath as part of its UK tour.
Many directors have twisted and reshaped the work of the Greeks, Shakespeare and most recently some of the big hitters of 20th Century American Drama and found it robust enough to survive and in many inspired productions shed light in works that possess infinitive depth. Yet can the same be said of some of our great playwrights? Dragged out of their era and deprived of their own very specific social circumstances do the plays of Shaw, Wilde and Coward take another giant leap forward or shrivel in on themselves? There have been far too few opportunities to give a definitive answer just yet, but based on the evidence so far, it is undoubtedly the latter streaking ahead.
Not that Sam Pritchard’s production can be classed an absolute disaster. By moving Shaw’s work of a flower seller made into a lady by a linguistic expert into a 21st Century setting, he has developed some nifty ideas and chucked in cheeky doffs of the hat to both the original work and the even more famous musical interpretation that it inspired (My Fair Lady).
It’s not a work of callow thoughtlessness but, at the same time, it can’t get to grips with the play in the setting he’s placed it in. Outside of a terrific first scene which finds members of the public reading the lines in their natural accents while the actors mouth it in sync on stage, the rest of the production is actually perversely overtly faithful to the original; but locked in a modern hipster world, all white studio and recording equipment, both the heart and the argument of Shaw’s work get flattened.
Why can’t a girl who now speaks in an approximation of the Queen’s English get a job rather than have to rely on marriage to support her? Why is a linguistic hipster hanging out in high society in Buckingham Palace and at dull balls instead of trendy cocktail bars and coffee shops? Pritchard has only pushed the play halfway. It needs to go further. It’s telling that the works funniest scene is when Eliza’s ‘move your blooming ass’ is translated into a more modern, bluer colloquium.
Alex Beckett’s Hoxton Higgins, all shaven head and non-ironic beard at least makes sense of the sexual chemistry that Shaw wrote in between creator and monster while Natalie Gavin as Eliza tangles up her pronunciation of ‘Kanye’ and ‘Beyonce’ in northern rather than cockney vowels. The performances are adequate but standoffish, maybe ideal mouthpieces for conveying Shavian arguments, but difficult to care about.
It’s the technical moments that will stay with you, from Alex Lowdes imposing studio sets lit with meticulous care and clinical intensity by Jack Knowle to Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, which, fittingly in a play about the sound of language, becomes the star. Meanwhile, Will Duke’s video designs are playful snippets of life which provide more context to the characters than the production can in 140 minutes of stage time.
There is a lot of style at play in this production, but what’s lacking in this brave but unfulfilling production is a staging that illuminates rather than clouds the writing. Maybe we need an Ivo van Hove to give us his Private Lives to really show us what the Granddaddies of British Drama can do.
Runs until 8 April 2017 then continues to tour | Image: Manuel Harlan