By Florence Lunnon
George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion sites the transformation of lower-class flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a ‘lady’ of the hegemonic bourgeois society. Eliza’s conversion is catalysed by Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor, who, in teaching her the dialect of the middle-class allows Shaw to portray the artificiality of the social structures within the world of the play, and of his own world too.
As Pygmalion was birthed in the realist lens, Tethered Wits Theatre Company’s choice to set this production in the scenic gardens of the Bath Holburne Museum is potentially controversial and out of context. However, ‘props’ (if you will) must be given to the producers for their accuracy in depicting the Victorian setting through the costumes, props and set pieces that often fulfilled (the incredibly specific) demands of Shaw. Although there were occasionally noticeably absent objects (such is the nature of being an outdoor travelling troupe) we were never majorly detracted from the overall aesthetic.
All the talented cast showed an aptitude for well-placed comedic timing. During the more high-energy scenes, Harry Twining (who played Pickering) brought a wonderful and much-needed grounding to the comedy, keeping the show within its realistic parameters. However, other actors would occasionally wander, pace, or frantically dash a little too often in scenes, taking the focus slightly away from the text itself. The language and rhetoric of the play was a main writing intention of Shaw, and there were often moments of stillness that were passed-by in favour of the more physically comical direction choices. Perhaps then the incongruency of having a realist play in an outdoor space appeared to me most.
Nevertheless, the actors still delivered their lines with much success. Orlando Giannini embodied Alfred Doolittle’s hatred for succumbing to ‘middle-class morality’ with great hilarity, and the relationship between Mrs Pearce and Henry Higgins (played by Gabriella Sills and Aaron Rozanski respectively) with their short and stubborn exchanges, often left the audience chortling.
The mellifluous sparks of Eliza Doolittle, played by Amy Porter, were always humorously punctuated and the infamous scene of Eliza’s interaction with Mrs Higgins, Mrs Eynsford Hill and Freddy left the audience in fits for several minutes. Porter certainly established herself as a true leading lady; she could deliver the amusing and yet still maintain empathy from the audience toward the end of the play. An incredibly versatile and moving performance that fully allowed Shaw’s elucidation of female subordinacy, regardless of social class, to come into full effect.
Rozanski was another stand-out performer, and his interpretation of Higgins had a certain boyish charm. Although, this was potentially a contentious decision. Instead of the middle-aged bully so often the version, it helped to fuel the much-debated ‘romantic’ ending with heart-wrenching irresolution. Porter and Rozanski’s scenes together were always stand out, their fractured relationship hitting frightening levels of believability, which is so incredibly difficult to achieve when you have the 173-bus storming through the city just 10-feet away.
Having studied the play through my feminist-orientated mindset, I was as surprised as Eliza discovering non-cockney vowels that Rozanski could make me feel sympathy for Higgins. A young phonetics professor, unable to articulate his true feelings (how ironic), whilst still containing the natural patriarchal dominancy of the character. Frustratingly talented. Higgins was witty, entertainingly socially naïve, and the additional musical elements on the violin complemented the comedy tastefully.
The overall use of music in the play, however, was slightly haphazard. Credit should be given for the warm and welcoming opening number from the whole cast. Matt Jackson (playing Freddy) should also be acknowledged for singing a wonderful ballad during one of the transitions, alluding to the famous (and best) song of the spin-off musical My Fair Lady ‘On the Street Where you live,’ with subtle elegance. The other transitions, particularly the non-musical, were less seamless and were often jarring compared to the overall slick cohesion of the scenes themselves.
However, overall, Pygmalion was truly a joy to watch. It was an evening thoroughly well-spent in laughter, blankets, and awe.
Image credit: Tethered Wits Theatre Company