Talking Movies

May 25, 2011

Pygmalion

The Abbey, almost a century belatedly, premieres Shaw’s popular masterpiece in a sparkling production.

Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady without the music as some people will insist on regarding it, sees arrogant Professor of Phonetics Henry Higgins take in hand a flower-girl who comes to him for elocution lessons after he’s alarmed her by transcribing her dialect in Covent Garden. He will do much more than change her screeching Cockerney accent into serviceable shop girl King’s English though, as, to win a bet with fellow phonetician Colonel Pickering, he undertakes to transform Eliza Doolittle into an imitation Duchess within six months and pass her off at a Royal Ball as such. Director Annabelle Comyn’s oddly revealing staging of the bathroom scene emphasises that Higgins really is stripping Eliza not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims.

Charlie Murphy, who impressed in Kenneth Lonergan’s three-hander This Is Our Youth at the Project in 2009, makes a wonderful Eliza Doolittle. Her physical transformation from filthy flower-girl to elegant faux-duchess is archetypal, while vocally her transition from East End to RP tones is impeccable and includes a coldness to Higgins in their final scenes that captures the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on. Nick Dunning, who Fassbendered his way across the Abbey stage in summer 2009 as Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals, enjoys himself greatly as the mild-mannered Colonel Pickering. He’s outdone though by Risteard Cooper who whoops it up as Henry Higgins, adopting an almost permanent squint and crouching impetuousness to convey a man intellectually so above his company as to be permanently impatient with their opinions and manners.

Shaw’s comedic highlights come before the interval, as after the ball Eliza and Henry go at each other in terrific arguments about class, identity, equality and manners, and what highlights they are. Lorcan Cranitch makes a hilarious appearance as Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle, self-proclaimed member of the undeserving poor wha’ can’t afford middle-class morali’y, and Hugh O’Connor (in a surprisingly small role after Valentine in last year’s Arcadia) is painfully funny as a Freddy so inept that he seems on the point of being overwhelmed by his own suit. Higgins’ many outrageous insults are delivered with gusto, while Eliza’s first appearance as a lady at Mrs Higgins’ ‘at-home’ is painfully funny; especially her wonderful dismissal of the idea of walking home as she exits, ‘Not bloody likely!’, and Clara’s declaration that she will use this ‘new small talk’ at her next ‘at-home’ – a prospect Higgins vigorously encourages, ‘Don’t be afraid to pitch it in strong!’

I’ve often complained that Shaw’s characters can sound less like human beings and more like power-point presentations of rival debating positions when they clash intellectually, but here, just as Paul O’Mahony’s realistic set slides apart on its top layer to reveal the bathroom of Higgins’ house and the sun-windows of his mother’s house, the play of ideas is never allowed to escape from its emotional origins in Eliza’s anguish and Higgins’ arrogance. Eliza’s reproaches sting, but Higgins’ closing creed of equality – ‘I treat a duchess as if she were a flower-girl’ – has oddly never sounded more meritocratic…

Comyn’s directorial resume is chock-full of contemporary plays, which is a testament to how incisive Shaw’s comic dissection of the intersections of class and speech was – people can still make other people despise them merely by opening their mouths…

4/5

Pygmalion continues its run at the Abbey until the 11th of June.

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2 Comments »

  1. […] Death of A Salesman, 7 Reasons to Love Scott Pilgrim, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pygmalion, X-Men: First […]

    Pingback by On Fassbendering « Talking Movies — June 10, 2011 @ 2:11 pm | Reply

  2. […] Pygmalion […]

    Pingback by Six Years, what a surprise | Talking Movies — September 1, 2015 @ 10:07 pm | Reply


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