By Simon Fearn
Ever feel you’re having a tough time at uni and surrounded by snobbish students? Chances are, you probably don’t have it as bad as Eliza Doolittle, the protagonist of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion rather than the mediocre pop singer. DUCT are offering a unique balance between respect for the original historical context and mediating the play through a modern perspective.
The production is unusual in the team’s determination to retain the play’s original historical milieu. “DUCT as a company wants to explore classical theatre,” explains director George Breare. “Pygmalion straddles both the modern and the Victorian. It has that feel of the British drawing room drama that’s so popular, but it also has the societal challenges that modernism brings. It’s a challenge to the traditional values of the time, and it’s also a subversion of the typical romance in Five Acts.”
Saying this, Breare and his team have recognised that a compromise must be struck, and parts of Pygmalion must be reassessed for the sensibilities of a modern audience. “We’ve adapted the ending,” Breare continues. “We discussed the different portrayals of the ending, and the ways people have got around it in the past, and we think we’ve found a compromise. It retains what people enjoy in these Victorian plays, but it’s a romance that’s a lot more subtle than your typical Hollywood cliché.”
When you look closer, Pygmalion is surprisingly relevant for a modern audience, especially class and gender issues. “It’s still got a lot of relevance” says Miriam Brittenden (Mrs Higgins). “On the one hand, people always like period drama, but they’ll appreciate the resonance in a modern context as well.” “We’ve explored physical violence between men and women as a theme,” adds Breare, “and the different types of power between men and women, whether that’s physical, vocal or positional. We’ve emphasised choice and mental liberation as what Eliza a modern woman.”
Issues of class are just as pertinent, with Tamar Detton (Mrs Pearce) likening Eliza’s experience to being criticised for saying “bath” and “path” rather than “barth” and “parth” at Durham (and yes, I am also from The North). “The whole idea that your behaviour’s all an act, that’s definitely relevant to groups of students at Durham,” Brittenden concludes. According to Breare, however, this comparison can only be taken so far. “I don’t think Pygmalion is about the plight of the lower classes,” he says. “Alfred Doolittle’s character puts paid to that very quickly! If anyone comes out worst, it’s the privileged Eynsford-Hills. I really don’t think this is a story of class struggle, Shaw’s socialist leanings will attest to that.”
Despite this only being Breare’s second production, his assured direction has given the cast great confidence. He has strong views, particularly on how not to do blocking. “I’ve always been a firm believer in the fact that blocking looks ridiculous if there’s no motivation behind it,” he says. “I’ve tried to look at blocking from the point of view of a character’s motivations.” This seems to be reaping rich rewards. “George has made it really explicit in the way that we move,” confirms Christie Clark (Clara Eynsford-Hill). “It helps us convey what we’re meant to. The direction has always been incredibly clear.” This attention to movement has also re-energised the large ensemble scenes in the play. “In the middle of the play, there is one scene where every character is on stage, sitting and talking to one another,” cites George Ellis (Henry Higgins). “Especially in that scene, there’s a lot of energy. Everyone has a different sort of energy.”
Pygmalion, then, offers the gloss of a period drama, tempered with contemporary issues and led with a firm hand on the rudder. “It has the perfect balance between being a serious piece of intellectual theatre and also being uproariously funny,” concludes Breare. What more could one ask from a night at the theatre?
Photograph: Christie Clark
‘Pygmalion’ will run from Thur 3rd to Sat 5th Mar at the Durham City Theatre. Book your tickets here.