Bernard Shaw’s most famous play, Pygmalion, arrives at West Yorkshire Playhouse this month in a co-production with Headlong and Nuffield Southampton Theatres.
Drawing its title from the Greek myth about an artist who falls in love with his own sculpture, Pygmalion has influenced a body of cultural work in the past century, including adaptations such as My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman and more subtle derivations in Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes. In this bold new re-imagining, director Sam Pritchard drags Pygmalion into an Ikea-furnished 21st Century, with Shaw’s original dialogue intact.
Pygmalion follows the story of Henry Higgins as he meets Eliza Doolittle, a waif-like northern flower seller with aspirations of self-improvement. She visits Higgins with a view to gaining elocution lessons, but he readily targets Doolittle as an opportunity for a careless linguistic experiment. As remarkable transformations take place in his hipster flat, neither foresee the challenge, conflict and division which her cultural evolution will soon create.
Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has a reputation which precedes it. Written in 1912, two years before World War I and a decade after the death of Queen Victoria, it is nestled between world-changing events and on the cusp of the suffragette movement. Shaw’s play buttresses womens’ rights in this regard, presenting Higgins as an arrogant, overgrown adolescent and Doolittle as a heroine trapped within her own social confines. Despite West Yorkshire Playhouse’s version relocating the period to the present day, the tensions are all the more shockingly relevant in this bleached-walled staging.
The decision to relocate the story in the present is inspired, pulling Shaw’s characters away from the twee and tweedy shelter of the past into a cynical modernity which ruthlessly exposes its characters to a more focused, contemporary criticism. Higgins, who is often portrayed as a bumbling eccentric, is played as a sociopathic man-child, thanks to a mesmerizing performance from Alex Beckett. A moping, over-indulged hipster plutocrat, Higgins is less affable and more deplorable for his actions, now exposed in a stark, contemporary light. A bully and a braggart, the Higgins of 2017 is a cutting critique of the heartless academic; a fool propelled by his own vanity project and sustained by old money. He is also a delicious satire on the alternative hipster, complete with a zen-like apartment void of texture, save for the odd cactus or module of analogue audio equipment.
The cast excel in their roles, crowned by an intense yet centered performance of Eliza Doolittle by Natalie Gavin. Doolittle’s northern accent is a unique spin on the social dynamics of the play, shifting emphasis from class to regional snobbery. Gavin’s portrayal is beautifully contained and resists the urge to trip into melodrama; this Eliza always retains a certain dignity, humour and biting reality. Other standouts include Liza Swadovy in an irresistibly camp turn as Higgins’ mother, matched in costume to the wallpaper print of her lodgings in a kitsch piece of production design by Will Duke.
Pygmalion’s use of stage technology is ambitious and effective. Extended projection and audio effects are often explored, with scenes punctuated by location cutaways beautifully filmed by Geej Ower. A bold opener mimed to prerecorded dialogue is also purposefully unsettling, ensuring that the audience is fully aware that the play is about accents and preconceptions of identity. Metatheatre comes into full play when the leads remove their headmics for a final confrontation, which feels all the more visceral when stripped of the technology which is glorified throughout the earlier scenes.
Pygmalion is a play which lives up to its hype and transcends time, due in part to its outstanding source material. Sam Pritchard’s bold version retains the sharpness of Shaw’s writing, with all the bite and contention of cutting-edge theatre. A superbly realised, progressively directed show, Pygmalion ingeniously retells a story from the past with all the relevant consequences of the present.
Cast: Alex Beckett, Ian Burfield, Gavi Singh Chera, Flaminia Cinque, Natalie Gavin, Rachael Ofori, Liza Sadovy, Raphael Sowole. Director: Sam Pritchard Writer: Bernard Shaw Theatre: West Yorkshire Playhouse Duration: 140 minutes Dates: 4th February – 25th February 2017.