Pygmalion – Steampunk brings the writers true vision to life. (Theatre Review)

Pygmalion

New Theatre

23 April to 25 May. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Bob Seary

The decision by director Deborah Mulhal to use a steampunk aesthetic in her production of Pygmalion has delivered George Bernard Shaw the vital reframing of the play he continually sought after crucial misunderstandings emerged in its staging and subsequent film productions. Although time-ambiguous, steampunk has roots in a style of industrial revolution that sometimes sources from the Victorian era. This focus on the industrial calls forth contumelious yet structural connections to lost referencing George Bernard Shaw struggled to re-presence through his multiple rages at a variety of incarnations of the famous play. Pygmalion was conceived during the publication of The Maiden Tribute by William Stead. The Maiden Tribute was a series of articles centered around the entrapment and ruin of poor women on behalf of the wealthy elite, many of whom might be paedophiles sleeping with young girls. The articles spoke of prostitutes claiming to be flower sellers in front of the theatre, the drugging of young women by feeding them spiked chocolate and problems of women being forced into prostitution because working class incomes were too low. If a girl complained about being taken into a brothel or held in an apartment by an upper-class man, she was called a bad and ungrateful girl. The articles included the controversial plight of a young woman named Eliza Armstrong who was purchased from her parents for five pounds.[1]

William Stead was vilified for these articles and when they were censored out of distribution, George Bernard Shaw was among those who dispersed the newspapers by hand to passers-by as a refusal of censorship. For George Bernard Shaw, the only difference between a prostitute and a duchess was a question of class. Women, he felt, needed to emancipate and relieve themselves of any financial dependence upon men.[2] For as long as he lived, he repeated till he was hoarse that Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins do not marry. Bernard Shaw the fabian, understood that women ought to work to secure their autonomy. His socialist principle was properly expressed in the female subject, not because of feminism per se, but because a fabian cannot tolerate the financial slavery of any person. For a fabian, the woman is the greatest slave. Pygmalion then, is a play about financial freedom and emancipation. A woman freeing herself from prostitution, finds rising up the ranks of society she has less access to work than she did as a whore. It is Mrs. Pierce, Mrs. Higgins and Eliza herself who ask repeatedly ‘but what is she to do?’ What is she to do indeed?

I have seen this play many times (and watched the films and musical versions even more) but until this brilliant production at the New Theatre, it never occurred to me that Eliza Doolittle might be a prostitute. Her constant protestation that she is ‘a good girl’ mean nothing for the time of George Bernard Shaw as no one was free to admit to such behavior then. But George Bernard Shaw left many tell tale signs, not the least of which is the play works so much better if she is. Now we understand Mrs. Pierce’s almost unkind constant refusal. We understand the true, more serious wager of passing a whore off as a duchess. We get a better sense of the tension when she visits at lunch and attends the ball. The final great battle between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle carries more meaning. No wonder he speaks to her the way he does. How powerful is she to refute him? No wonder everyone thinks Henry Higgins is going to sleep with her and toss her away. No wonder he is appalled at the suggestion.

So we come to the most controversial aspect of Pygmalion, the aspect that has attracted more scholarly attention than any other element of the play. The central question, the most shocking conclusion, of Eliza refusing Henry Higgins. Maurice Valency[3] states in 1973 that “A love scene at the end of the play was really obligatory…” for Eliza and Higgins, rather than Shaw’s “inept . . . rationalistic conclusion.” Commentators since are warmer to the ‘ambiguity’ of the ending, claiming it is a complex relationship that can’t be resolved in simplistic ways.[4] Deborah Mulhall knows better (of course) and calls forth performances that imply Eliza is tempted by a certain safety, but intuits (correctly) that her life with Henry Higgins, in any capacity, would be a sellout. If Eliza used to be a prostitute because, as a poor woman it was her only source of revenue in an industrialised world, the ending makes sense. Her emancipation is more urgent, and Henry Higgin’s treatment of her more emblematic of a society that makes a pretense of rescue as a veneer over class related hostilities. Henry Higgin’s ‘rescue’ is absent. Eliza’s discussion of who owns her clothing is made all the more powerful as it is clarity around transaction. Eliza may be, as Henry Higgin’s calls her a ‘slut’ but she is very good with her money, and she knows from the start that power lies with them who pay. From the original play, her plan is to marry Freddie (Robert Snars) when she can support him. Freddie is attractive precisely because she can forge an equitable scenario with her as breadwinner.[5]

More interesting than what Pygmalion might mean, is the enormous efforts that have gone into the distortion of Bernard Shaw’s play, surely the unholy zenith of which must be the 1964 manifestation. The beloved figure of Audrey Hepburn is appropriated to obliterate everything powerful about Eliza Doolittle, and we are spoon fed the saccharine of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in an effort to re write the powerhouse text. All of this is removed in Deborah Mulhall’s excellent production, and we are back-to-basic-Shaw with his biting commentary on class distinction and the important connection between work and emancipation. Again, it is the wit and wisdom of the Steampunk aesthetic that removes the temptation to sing the catchy tunes in our head, as we watch this fascinating revival feed us unadulterated, healthy George Bernard Shaw. Evoking a ‘right to work’ energy that surpasses any capitalist nonsense about a competitive marketplace, Pygmalion under the direction of Deborah Mulhall becomes an essential reframe of a capitalist appropriation of the working ethic. As for George Bernard Shaw, Deborah Mulhall proves that one hundred years later we are still not ready to absorb the proper understanding of his radical ideas.

Pygmalion, currently showing at The New Theatre in Newtown is therefore, one of the best productions of this famous play I have seen. Director Deborah Mulhall does a spectacular job with her cast and crew who work together to give us the writers vision. On a magnificent set by Tom Bannerman, Mehran Mortezaei’s lighting and Patrick Eades’ sound properly fill out the theatrical experience and complete the fresh approach taken by the director. Gundega Lapsa acts as support with assistant director but much has to be said for Fiona McClintock’s outstanding efforts in costume design, for the political and literary impact they bring to the play. (If you want to see how a costume designer can affect text, this is an essential consideration)

 

A superb cast round out overall stellar efforts with this production. Steve Corner is as fine a Henry Higgin’s as you’ll see. He brings an exuberance and vitality to the well-known role that takes full advantage of his famous, superbly written lines. Beside him, Shan-Ree Tan is a vivid choice for Colonel Pickering. His beautiful voice and immaculate presence present an enigmatic characterization that sits comfortably. However, the stellar casting of the two primary male characters equally lies in their height. Emma Wright, who plays a superb Eliza Doolittle, is a very tall young woman, given additional stature by clothing and staging. This has her tower above Higgins and Pickering, a perspective that is cleverly enhanced by Tom Bannerman’s set. Her performance leans toward enormity. She keeps her large eyes open and glassy with emotion, her multiple moods and the horrors she experiences cast at her with words, play themselves out on her face with swift delicacy. It’s a wonderful performance that feels closely engaged with the original text.

Supporting roles by the wise women become equally essential in a proper translation of the original text. Colleen Cook as Mrs. Higgins, Natasha McDonald as Mrs. Pearce and Tricia Youlden as Mrs. Eynsford Hill each take on broader dimensions in this properly executed version.  Colleen Cook is divinely clever as Mrs. Higgins while Natasha McDonald is unrelating and witty as Mrs. Pearce. It is in their relationship to Henry Higgins that much of the text comes to the fore. We believe less of Henry’s version of himself as anti-establishment, and see him more as a thoughtless prankster through these two performances. Robert Snars as Freddie Eynsford Hill presents an essential and interesting performance, enhanced by the relationship with his mother (Tricia Youlden) and his sister Clara (Tiffany Hoy) who occur as preparatory influencers of Freddie’s ability to be a fit partner for Eliza. Strong women in and of themselves.

Mark Norton supports the complicated role of Alfred Doolittle well, carrying off the essential speeches that reveal the writer’s philosophies. He does a wonderful job as the ‘other’ man Eliza doesn’t like. He stands alone, refusing the usual similarities with Colonel Pickering that evoke a clumsy Electra complex around the father, as his own subject. This performance rightly calls forth the philosopher as it should do. Ensemble roles played by Lisa Kelly, Emilia Kriketos, Sean Taylor and Vitas Varnas are all vibrant, strong and true to the director’s vision.

This production of Pygmalion at The New Theatre is yet another excellent example of the magic theatre creates when flawless production values are not preferenced over experimenting with ideas and theories. As a great fan of this play, I found the confrontation toward my innate understandings exciting and invigorating. It is essential viewing for any lover of Pygmalion, and a very interesting example of how direction can heavily influence interpretation. Highly recommended.

 

[1] I have not been able to read all of Celia Marshik’s paper entitled ‘Parodying the £5 Virgin: Bernard Shaw and the Playing of Pygmalion’but abstracts from this work have been influential in this review.

 

[2] See Eliza underminded: the romanticisation of Shaw’s Pygmalion by H. Nguyen for more on this subject.

 

[3] Professor of literature at Colombia, theatre critic and author. Maurice Valency’s wiki page is here.

[4] Nicholas Grene also sees the conclusion as an “unresolved conflict between [Eliza and Higgins]” – two people with “attractions to one another” – and argues that it “is the right ending . . . because it is the ultimate expression of the inalienable individuality of each”

[5] Eliza expresses a wish to support Freddie who she is aware can’t work, a fact that is regularly absent from productions. When we meet Freddie, he is responding warmly to powerful women – his sister and mother.