first night

Pygmalion

Mubasil Chaudhry visits the City Theatre to watch DUCT's latest production.

 Staging the beloved British masterpiece that is George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was always going to be a challenge, and this was evident in Durham University Classical Theatre’s attempt.  Both wonderful set decorations and often spectacular acting could not redeem a production that ultimately felt both rushed and overly self-conscious.

From the first act, the production had its flaws, not least with Higgins’s decision to make a bet with Pickering, which would be stated again in Act II as if it were a new idea, suggesting an inconsistency in the writing. The lack of a mob, as Shaw had in the original text, in the opening act was also problematic, as we are left without the symbolic chaos and oppression of society the poor feel. Additionally, crucial moments of the play were left out including the interaction between Eliza and Mrs Pearce, which would have allowed the audience to see the maternal instinct Mrs Pearce offers to Eliza. Similarly, Eliza’s phone call to Freddy at the end of Act IV, a symbolic freeing of her awful treatment from Higgins, is also left out. Just like these important moments are missed, there is a tendency in the play to place cheap comedic laughs in favour of Shaw’s social critique – highlighted in Doolittle’s speeches of Act II where the original impact of Doolittle’s suggestions are not entirely felt by the audience, but we are merely led to be amused by his mediocre quips.

However, the play is not without a saving grace, in the form an absolutely wonderful cast. The sure standout is Elana Kaymer who, with an uncanny Cockney accent, seamlessly showcased Eliza’s development from a hunched, vulnerable yet confident flower-girl to a mature, fierce lady. However, I felt she was let down by the writing and direction which, especially in the crucial closing scenes, prohibited her from truly showcasing Eliza’s newfound independence. Also, George Ellis must be mentioned for his fine attempt at playing Professor Higgins. Though a few stutters and one moment of forgotten speech broke the dramatic rhythm of the play, he quickly made up for this, ultimately capturing the aggressive confidence of Higgins and making full use of the stage to invoke Higgins’s childish mannerisms. However, Ellis too is hindered by the direction, as the true bullish nature of Higgins is not completely brought to the forefront, but compensated with romantic feelings for Eliza.

Miriam Brittenden (Mrs Higgins) and Tamar Dutton (Mrs Pearce) also deserve mentions, as Miriam finely invoked Mrs Higgins’ maternal care and gentlewomanly manners and Tamar was wonderful in carefully balancing Mrs Pearce’s devotion to Higgins and care for Eliza in a highly convincing manner. The spectacular comedic timing of both Christie Clark (Clara Hill) and Jack Whitmore (‘Cockney Bystander’) were also notable highlights. Along with the acting, the set decoration must also be highly commended for surrounding the audience in an authentic Victorian household, closely following Shaw’s stage directions even to the use of a sculpture of ‘a half human head’.

Still, the final act cemented the production’s failure. The director, George Breare, bravely attempted to find a sort of middle-ground between Shaw’s intention behind his original work and the many adaptations that have followed, including My Fair Lady , which have sought a romantic conclusion. Those faithful to Shaw’s vision will have surely been annoyed at the romantic tension between Higgins and Eliza in the final moments, culminating in a highly peculiar attempt for a kiss on Higgins’s behalf; whilst those expecting a proper romantic end were also left disappointed. Ultimately, the ending of the play epitomised the rushed nature of the play, for Higgins’s sudden romantic affection came about too abruptly for an audience to make sense of, especially after threatening Eliza (‘I’ll wring your neck’) moments earlier. Just as Higgins’s abrupt personality change is questionable, Eliza’s subtly affectionate dialogue in the closing provides a direct antithesis to the nature of the original play as an unashamedly feminist piece of literature; the refusal to present an utterly, without a doubt, autonomous Eliza at the play’s conclusion was, for me, a catastrophic misstep on the director’s behalf, reducing the play to a shadow of the triumphant social and gender critique Shaw created.

The production is a highly peculiar adaptation and has failed to take a sure stance on Shaw’s work, existing in a limbo between pleasing audiences and staying to true to Shaw’s intentions. If one can excuse the confusion on behalf of the director, then the incredible acting will surely make the evening worthwhile.

4 March 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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