The theatre-goer off to see Pygmalion when it was first performed in London would probably have been surprised. Until George Bernard Shaw’s play, what an educated person would have known about Pygmalion, if they knew anything at all, was that it was the name of a Greek sculptor-king who fell in love with his statue when it came to life. It was a classical story then best known from translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and from the poetry of William Morris and a series of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones.
But the theatre-goer would not have seen somebody in a toga flirting with an animated sculpture. Instead they had a pompous professor with flimsy views on social mobility and a sweary Covent Garden street-girl with a loud cackle. Shaw’s own transformation of a tale about metamorphism was stark and radical, and its effect on those who first saw it is lost on us, because of the later popularity of the 1956 musical derived from the play after Shaw’s death, My Fair Lady.
So powerful has been the impact of the later musical, best known to most people now from the 1964 film, that it is difficult to appreciate Pygmalion as a play on its own terms rather than as a jolly comedy of manners in Cecil Beaton outfits. Each major character, most of the important scenes and, crucially, each confrontation between the professor Henry Higgins and the flower-seller Eliza Doolittle will be viewed by most audiences through the filter of the later musical and film.
But the play is not about a steady progression of Eliza from ’umble beginnings to being taken to be a Hungarian princess. It is about fundamental and perhaps unforeseen changes in first Eliza and then in Higgins, and what this said about their society. It should be a disconcerting comedy rather than a comforting play.
This production directed by Pauline Armour met the challenge of performing a Pygmalion as a play in itself, rather than as a proxy for My Fair Lady. The designs, and especially the uses of colours in costumes and settings, were original and striking. The set design and costumes were gorgeous. It took the audience to the Victorians and Edwardians rather than to the Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s. This was a glorious Pre-Raphaelite version of the play. The crew, headed by Jan Greenhough, Michele Ashton, Paul Ackroyd, Colin Martin, Daiva Aleksiūnaitė and Kerstin Beard, all did first-class jobs.
And the acting was spot-on. From her first appearance, Megan McGery was a perfect Eliza Doolittle. She was as plausible as the cockney in the rain at the beginning to the star of the ball towards the end. Her relationship with her instructors-cum-captors was shown with a mix of compliance and conflict, and her final breaks with those seeking to control her were all the more persuasive as you could see it coming.
Chris de Pury as Higgins and Stevie Hughes as Pickering did not go down the usual alley of playing the pair as a clever Holmes and a bumbling Watson. There was instead a mix of gentleman-like courtesy and casual cruelty as they set about playing with their supposed toy.
This made the telling-offs by Higgins’ mother, played brilliantly by Hilary Cordery, all the more forceful. The pair may have looked like adults but they were children. And the Kevin-the-teenager moments of Higgins were more true of the character than Rex Harrison’s charming urbaneness in the film. Kay Samways as a Brummie Mrs Pearce complemented the central characters with exasperation and despair at their antics.
So dominant are the main characters in the play, the others – especially Eliza’s wayward father Alfred and the worthy but dull Eynsford-Hills – cannot help but be eclipsed. But Richard Gissing, Gavin Dyer, Naomi Cunningham and Roxana Graves ensured that the story was not imbalanced, and they indeed offered a welcome counterweight to the strange dysfunctions of those central to the plot.
And more than is even usually the case, those behind the scenes should be congratulated. The set designs and all the costumes were magnificently done. The lighting, in particular, made the wonderful colours stand out.
As play about practical politics and social reform, Pygmalion had its limitations even when it was first performed. But as a play about what misguided people can inflict on others for what they claim are good reasons, and how those others may react, the play has few equals. And this production was as good a Pygmalion as one could hope for, and it made you forget the distorting lens of My Fair Lady.