The classic tale of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is a crowd-pleaser for all ages. The latest production by the New Theatre is no exception. It’s a story that’s been told in many versions since it was written in 1912, the most loved being My Fair Lady. The play’s title is apt, named after the ancient Greek figure Pygmalion, a sculptor who loves one of his creations so much that it becomes real.
Set in London at the turn of the 20th century, Eliza Doolittle (Emma Wright) is a humble young woman struggling to earn a few pennies selling flowers on the street to middle-class passers-by. She is conscious of her poor station in life but dreams of elevating herself to one day work in a flower shop. Whilst negotiating a sale to a gentleman Colonel Pickering (Shan-Ree Tan), another man is at a distance writing notes of their conversation. He reveals himself to be Henry Higgins (Steve Corner), an English Professor whose hobby and expertise is to determine a person’s class and home town purely from their manner of speech and dialect. Colonel Pickering also studies phonetics and the two men have been trying to meet each other in order to discuss their mutual interest. Intrigued by Eliza’s enthusiasm and raw language skills, Pickering enters a bet with Higgins to see whether he can transform Eliza into a society lady. If successful, Pickering will pay the cost of Eliza’s lessons.
Eliza is a willing participant to this arrangement but must endure the bad manner and ill temper of her tutor Higgins. He is shamelessly chauvinistic, arrogant and ignorant of other people’s feelings. At one stage he says of Eliza, “She is so deliciously low. So horribly dirty”.
A sub-plot involves Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle (Mark Norton) who describes himself as “one of the undeserving poor”. He confronts Higgins about keeping his daughter in his care, but settles on five pounds, effectively ‘selling’ Eliza to the Professor. George Bernard Shaw uses Alfred to comment on the British class structure. In one of Alfred’s rant, he argues “What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything”. Later, Higgins says “Independence? That’s middle-class blasphemy”.
The play is described as a romantic comedy but its hard for Eliza to find romance from her tutor. Pickering and Higgins are the hard men of upper society whose wealth and status disconnect them from the everyday lowly poor. In Pygmalion the pecking order of British class society is on display…and its not pretty. It’s almost an offence for wanting to rise the social ladder. There are hints of domestic violence, misogyny, inequality and blatant opportunism. Yet, all this is not overt or over the top. There are plenty of light-hearted moments, comical scenes and yearnings for hope.
The characters of Mrs Higgins (Colleen Cook), Mrs Pearce (Natasha McDonald), Mrs Eynsford Hill (Tricia Youlden), Clara Eynsford Hill (Tiffany Hoy) and Freddy Eynsford Hill (Robert Snars) provide some sanity and rationality in London’s society circles. In fact, Henry’s mother, Mrs Higgins sums up our collective frustration with Henry when she simply declares “Men. Men. Men”.
The main characters are very well played. Steve Corner as Henry Higgins delivers the required confident aloofness. Shan-Ree Tan as Colonel Pickering shows a more caring, softer side. Emma Wright as Eliza Doolittle shines as she shifts from the gutter girl to a high-class lady. And Mark Norton as Alfred Doolittle is a likable rogue who is unwittingly thrust into the middle classes.
Director Deborah Mulhall should be proud of this production. A simple but creative monochrome set stood in contrast to the colourful costumes and lighting, enabling characters to stand out as they should. Pygmalion is a clever story with a not so predictable conclusion. There are many issues still relevant but above all, it’s a marvellous and amusing work of entertainment. I recommend it to all!
Pygmalion is playing at New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown until 25 May 2019. Bookings: www.newtheatre.org.au