The Berkshire Review in Australia / Theater

The 100th Birthday of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion: The Sydney Theatre Company Celebrates With Something Different

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The Sydney Theatre Company's Pygmalion, Act V, Andrea Demetriades as Eliza and Marco Chiappi as Higgins. Photo by Brett Boardman.
The Sydney Theatre Company's Pygmalion, Act V, Andrea Demetriades as Eliza and Marco Chiappi as Higgins. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts
by George Bernard Shaw

Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay: 4 February 2012
continues in Sydney until 3 March

The Sydney Theatre Company

Director – Peter Evans
Set Designer – Robert Cousins
Costume Designer – Mel Page
Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper
Composer – Alan John
Sound Designer – Steve Francis
AV Designer – Sean Bacon
Dramaturg – Toby Schmitz
Voice & Dialect Coach – Danielle Roffe

Professor Henry Higgins – Marco Chiappi
Eliza Doolittle – Andrea Demetriades
Mrs Eynsford Hill – Vanessa Downing
Clara Eynsford Hill – Harriet Dyer
Colonel Pickering – Kim Gyngell
Mrs Higgins – Wendy Hughes
Mrs Pearse – Deborah Kennedy
Freddy Eynsford Hill – Tom Stokes
Alfred Doolittle – David Woods

Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton as artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company saw fit to bring out a new, modern, almost experimental approach to Shaw’s most popular play for its 100th birthday. To speak of the birth of a play, or any piece or performing art, is tricky. Shaw wrote the play in 1912, but the words on in the script are no more the play than those of a poem are the poem or a score the piece of music. Even in Shaw’s case where the sounds of the words are so important and the characters’ accents are all precisely set out — the drama depending almost as much on the raw sounds than their words’ meanings — not to mention Shaw’s preface to the play and his (I think purposefully prosaic) postscript-sequel, there is still room left for at least subtle variations in interpretation. With all these pieces of information specifying Shaw’s intentions and the precise and definite stage directions, the play is already especially alive on the page, but still much of the gestural and body language and movement, which is very important to language, is left open. For all this definiteness, the end is so ambiguous, and as a “romance”, itself a very broad term, it is more akin to, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s species of romance. From a character’s point of view it is almost easier to find oneself in a tragedy and leaving one’s problems behind at the end. The play is very much set in its time and place, at least on the surface; it is English and couldn’t be sensibly removed to another country, all the humor and drama depends on England’s species of class system, but still its perennial popularity in so many parts of the world, at least the English-speaking world — and here we are in one of the farthest-flung English speaking countries — implies a fundamental problem uniting all the Englishes.

The Sydney Theatre Company's Pygmalion, Act I, Andrea Demetriades as Eliza. Photo by Brett Boardman.
The Sydney Theatre Company's Pygmalion, Act I, Andrea Demetriades as Eliza. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Peter Evans’ and Co.’s new production doesn’t so much modernize the play — it already is a modern play and always has been — as allows it to be modern in the present day. The accents are as English as the London setting and no effort “to update” the script, for example, with new technology (I can’t recall if the wax cylinder reference was cut or not) or to adjust for inflation has been made. Mr Evans bends some of the stage directions and ignores others entirely and the set is minimal and non-literal, but he uses this flexibility as well as video projection (sparingly) to imply some of the film-only parts Shaw added for the 1938 film. The production takes advantage of the language of current mannerisms and fashions where fitting. The actors of today have today’s language in their ears, and the language has gone through a fair bit since Edwardian times, though perhaps not so much in its upper crust. Andrea Demetriades doesn’t speak in a strict Cockney accent but rather a carefully broadened English lower class one. Marco Chiappi creates his Professor Higgins as much from his gestures and movements as his voice, and his accent too is slightly broadened, not the Queen’s English but more neutral, but certainly not without accent, especially when riled up and swearing. The sets, like Shaw’s description of Eliza’s lodging in Drury Lane, are the “irreducible minimum” to make each scene, otherwise leaving the bare dark gray walls of the theatre: a bit of stage rain makes Covent Garden, a few pieces of furniture for Mrs Higgins’ drawing room. Professor Higgins’ laboratory has modern instruments, microphones and electronic amplifiers, video screens and cameras and computers, not used so much as props but as scenery. The clothes, almost as important in the play as the language to the drama, really inseparable from it in the drama, are modern, but make their point without being obvious. There are no top hats, but luckily men’s respectable clothes don’t change very fast in England, so Pickering and Higgins wear pleasantly light colored suits with pastel shirts and waistcoats, and tuxedoes in Act IV. Higgins is more rumpled than Pickering but not mismatched as far as color goes. Eliza’s street garb includes baggy trousers and layers of tee shirts, coats, and jackets all dirtily blending together. She wears a day dress in Act III to Mrs Higgins’ which is pretty and bright but smart, just on the comfortably unpretentious side of glammed-up, and in Act IV a trailing evening dress more than elegant enough to make Professor Higgins treatment of her uncomfortable.

Miraculously, the politics of the play come in naturally without ever being muted; they never seem clunky even though it is a very political play. Shaw admitted that it is a didactic play and that he wanted it to be didactic and moreover wrote that “all great art can never be anything else.” But none of his characters become mouthpieces, they are too flawed, yet all together they convey strongly a particular world view and social criticism without downright satire, Henry Higgins could even be seen as Shaw having a little go at himself. Perhaps Shaw used his prefaces, in Pygmalion’s case at least, tinged with a critic’s sourness (he did write reviews as a younger man), to spend enough of his political opinionatedness to leave the play clean and unburdened enough to avoid monotony or too heavy didactic. The play is farcical at least on the surface and in a way is hard to take seriously except that the characters have so much humanity and never behave at any point in a way that seems unbelievable in the context or awkward in a way which removes them from the sub-world of the play. The really interesting and gripping problems are the human, moral dilemmas, which take the fore.

Andrea Demetriades’ acting style brings out Eliza’s unconventional strength and modern intelligence. Her gestures are mostly modern but very natural through all the stages of her characters’ transformation, and all very much of a piece. This Eliza’s strength and sensitivity and intuitive morality with a certain no-nonsense pride don’t let any wrong by unquestioned or unfought — there is even a sense of this in Act II when she seems ultra-defensive — and though to her comfortable conventionality is a temptation, she doesn’t really seem to find it comfortable enough to be inevitable; she is too strong willed, too sharp, and too full of creative spark to be a mere cute doll of Professor Higgins’. A marriage to Freddy — as Tom Stokes and Ms Demetriades played the Act III scene, almost like a schoolroom — seems as unlikely as a marriage to Higgins. Here she has nothing at all in common with Freddy and no love-chemistry. Her dilemma at the end becomes all the more universal and poignant.

Professor Higgins’ technique as professional training with a mind to raise his pupils income and class is not so different from today’s universities, or at least how they are viewed by today’s politicians. Marco Chiappi’s Higgins as a somewhat compromised theoretician and amoral scientist is quite a dark one. He is more than the amoral, half-mad scientist, though he played with that stereotype. With his body language and movements especially, not to mention his cave-man hairdo, he brings out the childishness of the character without becoming (too) absurd or unlikely. He is fairly scary when he shouts, but he shouts so much it becomes tiresome, as tiresome as Eliza’s ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oos as Shaw wrote them. But Chiappi has experience enough to be able to blur the boundaries of coaxing and manipulation without seeming malicious. Mr Chiappi and Ms Demetriades were especially strong after the interval, the Act IV and V arguments, which were poignant and powerful, showing great depth of interaction between the actors.

Kim Gyngell’s Pickering, soft spoken and very gentle next to Higgins, but never washed out by him, then makes him a nice foil. He is almost as deeply experienced, just as much the Man of Science, but more widely experienced, less fearful of sentimentality. It is a difficult character in the way Dr Watson is to Sherlock Holmes, and Mr Gyngell managed to be more than just a comic straight man. Likewise Deborah Kennedy and Wendy Hughes transcend any conventional stereotypes and difficulties in Mrs Pearce and Mrs Higgins, respectively, though Ms Hughes’ costume made her a bit too stately.

David Woods’ Alfred Doolittle too is quite modern in accent and intonation of his speeches, as well as in his shaven head and gestures, but he is never sinister or really nefarious. At times he over emphasized in trying too hard to push the point across, but his humor was never obvious and his comic timing spot on.

The Sydney Theatre Company's Pygmalion, Act IV, Andrea Demetriades as Eliza and Marco Chiappi as Higgins. Photo by Brett Boardman.
The Sydney Theatre Company's Pygmalion, Act IV, Andrea Demetriades as Eliza and Marco Chiappi as Higgins. Photo by Brett Boardman.

The whole cast was strong enough to avoid being swallowed in the very bare and vast space around them, so bare and vast it could be distracting at times, though the furniture, the actors’ movements and placement and the clothes especially went a remarkably long way to paint each scene. And of course one’s imagination added too; the way the design avoided literal-mindedness was refreshing. There was also a screen which dropped down occasionally to take a projected video. Some of the audio-video elements in the production, though experimental in the overall concept, didn’t work quite as well. There is something off-putting about watching a movie screen in a play and the “close-up” of Eliza’s face on it for the looking glass scene in Act IV was especially cinematographic, though Ms Demetriades acting went a ways to rescuing the idea. The opening scene in Covent Garden used microphones on off-stage actors for the dialogue between Higgins, Eliza, the Eynsford Hills and the bystanders with Eliza crouching alone in the center of the stage, and though this added to the murkiness and atmosphere of the scene, Ms Demetriades’ complaining created plenty of cold, wet, dark Covent Garden gutter atmosphere, and the dialogue was too confused and muddled.

Otherwise the play took up well the new approach even if the bareness of the scenery was unsupportive, the actors did not need the support and seeing and hearing the play distilled into acting — speaking and moving and expressing — was interesting, refreshing in leaving more to the imagination. Indeed, a very conventional production of Pygmalion would have been ironic. At any rate, this production, even with its flaws, proves that despite (or because of?) its popularity, familiarity and audience’s expectations also, from both the musical and the 1938 Leslie Howard-Wendy Hiller film version which is definitive in being Shaw-approved, as he (in his own words) “wrote it and wanted it to be produced,” there is much room for interpretation for performers and directors and even for experimentation.

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