21st March, 2017
I’ve so far avoided seeing and reading any of GB Shaw’s plays. Put off by their length and perceived (and literal in terms of the library’s bookshelf) dustiness, no amount of star casting and glowing reviews has tempted me to see a Shaw play yet. Pygmalion’s story of the common flower girl turned lady by an ambitious, hedonistic phonetics professor is widely known. Here, Headlong’s Sam Pritchard has pruned the text and that does away with all the conventional trappings of recent revivals – big costumes, big beards(?), fussy sets – which has resulted in a production that makes the play as fresh as a daisy.
We’re in a kind of contemporary London; Shaw’s references to specific parts of London such as Drury Lane are there and there are some impressive bits of film directed by Geej Ower set in London, in a black cab and in Eliza’s bedsit. It’s in this last setting where we see Eliza sat on her bed miming to Audrey Hepburn’s (actually Marni Nixon's!) version of Loverly from Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical adaptation My Fair Lady. The production also uses contemporary dress and there are a few additions to the text mainly for comedic effect - and they really are funny!
I’m reminded of Jamie Lloyd’s comment ‘treat every classic as a new play’. Pritchard strips away the reverences often given to classics. Indeed, Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design accentuates the play’s theme of ownership, and creates a theatre experience that is fun, captivating (especially technically but not exclusively) and, perhaps the biggest achievement, acknowledges the play’s status as Classic (with a capital C) yet makes it contemporary. Shaw’s dialogue does have its funny moments, helped by the freshness of the delivery by this cast and it’s exploration of how voice/accent is often intricately linked to someone’s morals, intelligence and class is still (bizarrely) relevant.
Pritchard’s input doesn’t swamp the play at all. Updating old plays can seem jarring, a hurdle which Pritchard has cleared by embracing those contradictions. In fact, the beginning of the play brilliantly emphasises the production’s interest in Shaw’s text and plays with the play’s interest in the seemingly inseparable link between voice and person. As the lights go down we hear a recording of the beginning of a workshop where a group of volunteers read the play aloud. They are told not to over accentuate the lines and to, vitally, read the lines in their normal accents. This recording of the opening scene plays over actors on stage miming their words, apart from Eliza. They play multiple characters irrespective of age and gender, again apart from Eliza. This first scene is set outside a theatre with people looking for cabs in the rain. What would normally be one of those long exposition scenes is turned into something so absorbing: you’re not always sure whether someone is speaking or if it’s from the recording. Even when you can tell it’s a recorded voice, the dialogue is so well mimed that it creates a sense of dislocation, one that is echoed in different ways throughout the play.
In a scene where Eliza is in Higgins’ microphone booth, she insists that a drop of alcohol has never passed her lips. However, Higgins is messing with the sound controls and it makes her voice high-pitched. Higgins’ voice alteration thus undermines what she is saying and takes away the intent and denies her her self-respect behind the line, emphasised by the fact that she is at that moment locked in the booth. I think there’s a section in Dan Rebellato’s Theatre & Globalisation where he discusses the use of radio microphones used in West End ‘megamusicals’ and how they can diminish the liveness and immediacy of the work. In the last scene of Pygmalion, Eliza and Higgins take their radio mics off, their voices no longer distorted and amplified in surround sound. It is now clear to hear where the voices are coming from and who they belong to, Eliza now changing her accent.
There are rewards in cutting the text so much. The opening of Act Two is the party which I presume is usually a much longer scene. Here, it is reduced to a cycle of ‘How do you dos?’ and ‘Thanks awfullys’ (I don’t have the text to hand) and we only see a glimpse of the scene through a strip in the fourth wall. Yet, the minimal, ritualistic dialogue, champagne glasses and nice clothes are more than enough for us to understand the scene. However, some things are perhaps compensated. Eliza’s romance with fellow commoner Freddy is rushed but it’s typical of Pritchard’s production that he gives us exactly the amount we need with nothing superfluous.
But it’s not just the incisive directorial decisions that make this Pygmalion striking. In typical Headlong fashion, video mapping, projections, stark lighting and a contemporary design make the production so watchable and dynamic. There’s no risk in Alex Lowde’s design getting dusty. Simply stylish and devoid of all the fuss, it features a glass box which amplifies and intensifies what I imagine could otherwise be an impotent traditional drawing room scene.
Alex Beckett’s Professor Higgins is an obsessive, petulant, technologically-relaint phonetic professor, unlikable but not without vulnerability. He wipes down the microphone with sanitizer after Eliza’s used it and makes his closeness with his mother very believable. Towards the end of the play, he has a line about offering to adopt Eliza. I’m not sure if it specifies how it should be delivered in the text but Beckett does a very good job at saying a line which is eye-rollingly ridiculous today as if he realises that it’s a preposterous proposal. Furthermore, in a scene with his mother, Beckett makes what Higgins is complaining about so credible and contemporary, not at all from 1913. Equally impressive is Natalie Gavin. Her Eliza has a northern English (perhaps St Helens?) accent. This not only makes sense considering how the north and its accent is often perceived and represented but it also allows Gavin to build a very believable, feisty, yet still likeable, Eliza, moving away from the sometimes cutesy traditional cod Cockney portrayal. There are a host of other strong performances not least from Ian Burfield as Alfred Doolittle. His speech about 'who can blame him' for getting some money out of Higgins' proposal is addressed directly to the audience: doing so makes it highly political, allowing us to ask the same questions of ourselves.
Another success for Headlong, I could watch this production again and again. It makes a play which has got a bit of a reputation of being an old war horse relevant and fun and vital again.
Pygmalion plays at Curve, Leicester, until 25th March as part of a UK tour. Details can be found at headlong.co.uk