Pygmalion is a classic play – and like many classic plays, it comes with a lot of baggage. I don’t think a huge amount of people are familiar with the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea that lies behind it, but they are certainly familiar with the concept of the makeover genre (if they’ve ever seen, I don’t know, any reality TV, ever.) But the cultural baggage of Pygmalion is less to do with this thematic concern and more to do with hats and frocks and I could have danced all night-ing. You say Eliza Doolittle and ‘enry ‘iggins? People think My Fair Lady. They think Ascot. They think rags-to-riches, Cockney-to-RP, and most of all, they think about the hats and the frocks.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people come away from STC’s Pygmalion disappointed. There are no hats and frocks, no lovely sets, none of the trappings of what we think of as the ‘traditional’ Pygmalion. The stage at the Sydney Theatre is massive and stark. There is not a lot of set – a dressing table right down the back, where Andrea Demetriades as Eliza undergoes her transformations, a few machines to make Henry Higgins’s (Marco Chiappi) lab look all science-y. The show is played in modern dress, with nary a hat or a petticoat to be seen (though the dress that Demetriades wears in the tea-with-the-Eynsford-Hills scene is really, really gorgeous, and I want it).
So, as I said, I would not be surprised if a lot of people feel disappointed because this is not what they expected. I’m not one of them. The real insidious message of Pygmalion – the fact that Henry Higgins has actually attempted to create a sort of human sculpture, much like Evelyn does in Neil Labute’s The Shape of Things – is often concealed in the hats and the frocks and I really appreciated the attempt to strip it back.
But did it work? I’m not so sure that it did.
I feel like if the first scene had worked a little better, maybe I would have got into the stark staging and the vague modernisation more. As it was, the decision to play that scene just with Eliza onstage for most of it, with the rest of the cast members delivering their lines from the side, was strange and puzzling. Demetriades was a wonderful Eliza and she can certainly command the stage by herself, but this staging was... weird. I spent more time working out what that was meant to achieve than paying attention to what was going on, and that was, I feel, detrimental to my appreciation of the whole play.
Also – this is probably heretical to say, given that Pygmalion is such a classic, but I’m going to go there anyway – one of the major flaws of the script itself is that the fifth act, where Eliza and Higgins have a big argument and eventually she tells him that she is going to marry Freddy, is not really very interesting. It’s a rehash of the far more compelling argument they’ve had in the last scene – Eliza is frustrated, Higgins is frustratingly paternalistic, six of one, half a dozen of the other. It’s the point of the play where subtext really does become text, and I feel that something special has to be done with it to really make it interesting. This production doesn’t really do that. They do do some stuff with the video screen, going backstage to encounter Demetriades in her dressing room, but the ending of the play felt really laboured.
And on a personal note – extreme bias here, so be warned – the way that this production sidelines the Eynsford Hills made me really sad. I played Clara a few years ago, and she can be a really rich and interesting character – if you read Shaw’s epilogue to the play, about half of it is about what happens to her. I wasn’t sure why Harriet Dyer played her as so weepy during the tea party scene – it didn’t really make sense to me – but I think my major concern here dates back to the first scene again, where a lot of characterisation was sacrificed to have Eliza alone on the stage. I think Tom Stokes’s Freddy really suffered from this: he was fantastic and I would have liked to have seen more of him. In Shaw’s script, there are some optional scenes – not necessary, but they certainly add colour. This includes the famous Eliza-and-the-bath scene, as well as one after the ball where she meets Freddy. This production doesn’t include any of them. The play certainly works without them, but I would have loved to see Stokes get a chance to play that little post-ball scene with Demetriades.
There are some great performances in this show – I particularly enjoyed the work of Tom Stokes (as I mentioned above), David Woods as Alfred Doolittle, and Deborah Kennedy as housekeeper Mrs Pearce. Andrea Demetriades is an excellent Eliza and while I might not have agreed 100% with all of the characterisation, I thought all the cast did a good job. I love the hats and the frocks as much as anyone, but I was glad to see STC try something different here. Unfortunately, I don’t think they really pull it off. It’s a solid production, but ultimately underwhelming.