Pygmalion – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
Pygmalion – Review
West Yorkshire Playhouse, February 2017
by Sandra Callard
I have just been to see George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Most people know the film My Fair Lady, vaguely based on Shaw’s play, but the original play, written by Shaw in the early years of the 20th century, is now less well-known. I was curious to see the original, to hear his words, and to see how much of ‘his’ Pygmalion remains today.
After seeing this production, I know even less about George Bernard Shaw than I did before. His name does not get a mention in the programme, apart from a weak acknowledgement that the play was written by Bernard Shaw (minus the George). The man is recognised by his three name title, and to be shorn of one of his names is a tad irreverent.
The whole text of the programme is about phonetics. And, yes, I am aware that the focus of Shaw’s play is his bet to turn an ignorant Cockney girl in to a passable society lady. But surely it could do this and also show the human side of the characters. This production does not. There is no emotion, no meeting of minds, no sexual frissons, not even much comedy. I am unsure where the characters are going, and the reasons for their reactions. The most clear-cut actor on stage is Natalie Gavin as Eliza Doolittle, who portrays her inadequate life superbly.
“Something of a shallow caricature”
Professor Higgins, played by Alex Beckett, is an obnoxious professor of speech, whom nobody, not even his mother apparently, likes very much. But he is something of a shallow caricature, who annoys rather than impresses. Eliza is not a Cockney sparrow, but a Yorkshire lass in trainers, leggings and anorak. The image of a modern girl, albeit poor, trying to sell flowers to passers-by, is simply and unacceptably weird.
The whole cast is in modern dress, yet the conversation includes subjects about money in pennies, taking a ride in a carriage, and the King, presumably King George V who reigned in 1915 when Shaw wrote the play. Confusing? You bet, and annoying too. Perhaps a nod to the fact that the class system still resides today.
There is a stark semicircular stage set of linked boards, and a large amount of modern technology which changes the voices of the actors into deep bass, slow or fast words, speedy pronunciations, and high-level intonations. They often sound like intakse of nitrous oxide at a party. The training and rehearsing for this must have been gruelling, and the timing of the quick-fire changes in tone of speech is first rate.
“Clever stuff, but somewhat diverting”
The boards have been roughly thrown-up to allow us to see the working sides of the theatre, with staff and workers wandering by at will. The West Yorkshire Playhouse has a reputation for contemporary productions of classic plays, and this one upholds that trend. It is technologically brilliant and the opening sequence of the actors’ voices changing rapidly is funny and clever.
The play uses film in a unique way, and even has Eliza filming herself with her back to the audience, thus giving brief shots of the spectators. We see the reception where Eliza passes off as an aristocrat through an oblong gap in the boards. This is all clever stuff, but somewhat diverting from the action and tone of the play, which is Shaw’s cry that the British class system is alive and well, however much we may claim the opposite, and is more a lecture in linguistics and phonetics than an entertainment in drama.
This new production is a brave stab at innovation, but has too many inexplicable rants by Higgins, some ineffectual support, and not enough soul.
Photography by Manuel Harlan