I’ve been thinking a bit about how a play (or indeed any other literary art form) comes to be defined as a classic and it’s a quite knotty question. Clearly it’s got something to do with artistic quality and a universality of appeal. It can be applied to a work that had meaning when it was constructed but continues to have relevance to a later age and across generations. It also has influence on other later writers and their themes. Does this apply to a play such as Pygmalion – the latest offering from Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington? Here’s my review:
There are certain plays, aren’t there, that people “know” even when they have never seen them? Often this is because they are highly quotable and frequently quoted to the point where they exist almost in a specialised vacuum. Hamlet and The Importance Of Being Earnest are probably the front contenders for this specialised status but, running them a close third I would suggest is Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Lines like “I’m a good girl, I am”, “I can make a duchess of this draggle tailed guttersnipe” and “If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got, you’d better get what you can appreciate” have become all too familiar if only through the prism of the musical version My Fair Lady. Ask many of the same people why Pygmalion is called Pygmalion and they haven’t a clue….And in case you think I’m now about to explain, I’m not. What do you think the internet is for?
Whether you know the ancient Greek roots of the storyline or not the premise of a common (usually) girl being hoisted up the social ladder by a more educated (usually) male teacher has become a common place; think Pretty Woman, think Educating Rita. There is even, apparently an American sitcom called Selfie in which social media fanatic Eliza Dooley is coached by one Henry Higgs, a marketing image guru (see, I got that off the internet!)
So, since I’ve already established that the story arc is well known enough not to have to be précised and repeated let’s get straight down to the business of this particular production. It was shocking! And I mean that in the most positive way. Emilia Teglia’s intriguing production strongly foregrounded the manipulation and sheer callousness of the male participants – sweet Freddie aside. Both the beastly, boorish, bullying Higgins and the usually affable but awestruck Pickering play with their experiment with little thought for Eliza’s feelings or what is to become of her. Her success or otherwise is made the subject of a wager and thus money becomes a dominant theme. Her father literally tries to sell Eliza off for a fiver before succumbing to the influence of wealth and even the ghastly interpreter Neppomuck is out to make money from exposing her as a fraud. The voices of reason and sensitivity in the play are established as female – Mrs Pearce and Mrs Higgins both realise what the male manipulation is likely to bring about and subtly help Eliza to adjust to her new position in life rather than concerning themselves with the niceties of class distinctions and the sound of the young girl’s vowels and consonants. This concentration on the battle of the sexes (if I can use so trite a phrase) elevated a story that is usually predominantly about class into a more rarefied sphere and gave the production greater depth and strength than can often be the case.
The play, of course, stands or falls by the casting and performance of Eliza and Higgins and fortunately this production was blessed with what might be called a double whammy. Tower newcomer Celia Learmonth was a delight as the downtrodden girl turned independent woman and the subtle developments in her performance showed a real flair for character nuance. Her comic timing in what I shall call the tea party scene (even if there was no tea in evidence) was spot on and it is a testament to her engagement with the audience that “Not bloody likely!” still drew a small gasp in times when we are used to infinitely worse language. Dickon Farmar was terrific as Higgins with a high degree of restlessness in his character and expert delivery of zingingly withering put downs long before they became the fashionable norm they can be today. Another gasp came when, in the last scene, Higgins grabbed Eliza by the throat; how apposite that the Mark Field incident had hit the headlines just 24 hours earlier. Once again the fact that this was a real play for and about today came rushing to the fore.
Shaw’s gallery of supporting characters (no slur intended) was also brought vividly to life. Simon Taylor’s gentleman-like and gentle man-like Colonel Pickering was a very good foil to Higgins’ bluster. Kevin Furness made the most of his two telling scenes as the rascally yet wily Doolittle senior; I was forcibly struck in this production by the actor’s choices that the dustman was definitely not the chirpy Cockney vaudevillian of the musical but actually quite a nasty, slippery customer. The much more morally correct Mrs Pearce was nicely delineated by Sarah Wenban though I’d forgotten quite how little the character actually appears in the play. Rosanna Preston was suitably regal in her demeanour as the calm eye of Hurricane Higgins (sorry, couldn’t resist); the interplay between her and Farmar left me in little doubt as to whose approval the phonetics professor really sought. The Eynsford-Hills and their genteel poverty were very nicely done by Christopher O’Dea, Heather Dalton and Joanna Coulton. The latter, particularly had a real command of her character and made maximum impact with minimal dialogue. Completing the cast was Peter Novis as a variety of supporting characters as only he can play them.
If the production had a fault it was perhaps in this latter aspect as there was, for my taste, too few people to swell the scenes successfully in Covent Garden and at the Embassy ball. I guess it’s not easy to persuade sufficient company members to give up so many evenings to take on roles as extras but that’s Mr Shaw for you. Another dramatic challenge which Shaw invariably presents is the sheer number of locations he delineates. Set designer Max Batty’s straightforward but effective solution was to keep things relatively simple – windows which could be anywhere inside, blocks that could be used for seats or sideboards and the whole in neutral colours which helped the audience to accept that they could be in a variety of locations – luckily there is no need, in this original version, to recreate Edwardian Ascot. Offset against this neutrality was the colourful costuming of Irena Pancer which really helped to bring the action to life. I particularly enjoyed the little nods to “steampunk” couture in Higgins’ clothing and Clara’s “new woman” braces. Further life was breathed into the whole by Rob Hebblethwaite’s lighting design and the background music/soundscape compositions of Vera Bremerton; I believe the latter sampled the actor’s voices which was highly appropriate.
Establishing a fresh take on a classic is a risky business. To stay safely within prescribed barriers will bore some and to stray outside them will infuriate others. Hopefully the audience will have appreciated this carefully thought out compromise and gone away thinking more about the messages Shaw was trying to get across and the present day parallels rather than coming out humming the tunes. Mind you I couldn’t help but overhear one departing audience member say to a companion “But they missed out the bit where she goes back to him!” As Eliza would have said, “Garnnn!”*
So does Pygmalion qualify as a classic? I’d say that it does. Writer, critic and commentator Italo Calvino identified 14 criteria which delineate a classic piece of writing (there’s a handy summary here if you’re interested) and looking at these – and adjusting slightly to take into account the live performance and shared experience elements of the dramatic piece – I can place a confident tick against most of them. Not for nothing is Pygmalion Shaw’s most remembered and loved play even if, for many people, it is not actually the original they remember.
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