Review: Pygmalion at the Nuffield Theatre

Guest review by Edward Learman

Playing at the Nuffield Theatre last night I had the opportunity to see the latest reinterpretation of George Bernard Shaw’s classic Pygmalion, a co-production performed by Southampton University’s own Nuffield Theatre company and the two touring companies Headlong and West Yorkshire Playhouse.

I knew little about Shaw’s play, except that both he and HG Wells (The Time Machine) had at one time written propaganda romanticising the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s disastrous five-year plans. The title sounded Greek or Roman, and I’d remembered reading that it was an interpretation of the ancient myth, but this could just have easily been on the sleeve notes for My Fair Lady (1964). Interestingly, Pygmalion’s themes can be charted in such films as Titanic (1997), Pretty Woman (1990), She’s All That (1999), and probably a countless number of books and films across the world, making it a truly universal story about love, self-discovery and freedom.

The German term ‘Bildungsroman’ is often used to describe the fairy-tale journey of a hero from poverty to enlightenment; the forming of the ‘true self’ which they are destined to become. Having not seen Shaw’s original version and only familiar with its pop-culture references, I had incorrectly assumed that the play was a romantic Cinderella-tale similar to Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, neither of which I’d seen either.

Just 30 seconds into the first act, it was immediately apparent that Sam Pritchard and company had little interest in making the show about either manners or love. This was not a British romance like Four Weddings and a Funeral or Bridget Jones, but then perhaps Shaw’s original never was; without a doubt it did not contain lines like, “Are you going to walk?” / “Of course not, I’m going to get a f***ing taxi.”

The first scene that introduces the pauper Eliza Doolittle (Natalie Gavin) to her sponsor and nemesis Henry Higgins (Alex Beckett) shows the main cast standing on a street, sheltering from the rain, but reading their lines in dubbed recordings using different dialects and voices. A visual projection onto the set’s background shows the text of each individual line as it’s mouthed by the actors. This is jarring for the audience, hearing the same character speak their lines like ventriloquists, but makes it so that the projected subtitles is the only way of following the conversation.

The programme contains a short interview between one of the show’s creators Caitriona Shoobridge and Dr. Bronwen Evans (from the UCL’s Speech, Hearing and Phonetic Sciences Department), in which they discuss this scene and how people often change their accents, and what this means culturally. Perhaps this device undermines the purpose of the scene, which starts as a banal conversation about the bad weather, but ends with Henry and cast humiliating Eliza as she tries to earn money selling flowers.

Afterwards, the scenes revert back to a formal staged drama without the subtitles. The play becomes a slapstick, sometimes musical, foray as Henry coaches the naïve Eliza in order to win his bet that he can transform her into a duchess. The stage set combines film projection and large set changes, the most striking of these being Mrs. Higgins’ dining room, which resembles a huge iguana tank, and shows her camouflaged against the tropical-green wallpaper in her matching costume.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The cast give high-energy and flamboyant performances, delivering characters that go from Mighty Boosh-style slapstick to restrained moments of personal reflection. Its mixed-race cast of professional actors speak like bourgeoisie elitists, slipping in some modern phrases, to create a peculiar anachronism with Shaw’s original text. The supporting actors are versatile, especially Raphael Sowole as Colonel Pickering and Ian Burfield as Alfred Doolittle, showing their pitch-perfect timing at comic relief. The two leading actors, Alex Beckett and Natalie Gavin, whose performances require them to use different accents whilst showing the turns of the characters, are fascinating throughout.

The play is as much about bullying as it is about class prejudice. Inevitably, after being conned into a verbal contract by Henry and her father, Eliza chooses to turn her back on him when he tries to convince her that cruelty is really what class is all about.

Pygmalion is at the Nuffield Theatre until 13th May.

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