Theatre in Wales

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Intelligence, Originality and a Memorable Debut

At Theatr Clwyd

Pygmaliion- Clwyd Theatr Cymru , Theatre Clwyd, Mold , October 27, 2009
At Theatr Clwyd by Pygmaliion- Clwyd Theatr Cymru Terry Hands' production of “Pygmalion” is superlative, for at least three reasons. The first is the sheer concentrated intelligence that has been applied to Shaw’s 1916 text. It is all too easy to embalm Shaw in Edwardian nostalgia, all oak panels, tweeds and tiaras. Certainly the costume design does not stint; the opulence of the satins and velvets, tweeds and herringbones is startling. But designer Mark Bailey hangs a picture of Darwin on the wall of Professor Higgins' study. The room is less the customary tightly filled space but a spare and vaguely ascetic space, brightly lit. As usual Terry Hands is his own terrific lighting designer.

The Darwinian undertone in this commemorative year is cunningly reinforced by a little three inch bust on the desk. It is a reminder of two things; the play is about human beings adapting under stress, and that the period of its writing was equally a time of scientific and artistic turmoil. Although faithful to the text Shaw’s endless stage instructions for Act Three have been torn up. In place of the sea of Burne-Jones and William Morris the theme of modernism is written home by giving Mrs Higgins’ Chelsea flat huge art nouveau windows.

Secondly, this is a consummate ensemble production. “Pygmalion” would never be written today. There are far too many actors with small contributory roles. But all are woven thematically into the play's texture. The parlourmaid could just be a throw away part but in Charlotte Gray’s playing she too is shown to be struggling with her social role. Mrs Eynsford-Hill hardly has more than a few good lines but Sian Howard makes everything of the line about the poorness of her family and Clara’s restrictive prospects. The Eynsford-Hills are in their reverse way as much on the slippery borderline of social insecurity as the Doolittles. Guy Lewis will hate this but his Freddy could not help reminding me of George Osborne in his easy upper-class affability. Wayne Cater’s single scene appearance as Nepommuk, blending malice and hyper-activity, is a comic delight

Even great ensemble playing needs a lead. Philip Bretherton’s Higgins has none of the sense of boyish immaturity that Tim Piggott-Smith recently gave him. There are no baggy cardigans on show here. He and Robert Blythe’s Pickering are never to be seen without their tight waistcoats. When Betsan Llwyd’s Mrs Pearce announces the arrival of Eliza there is a tremor in his voice with the line “A woman.”

As for Hedydd Dylan’s Eliza the words used by that piece of critical granite known as John Peter were “an actress glowing with promise.” The part of Eliza breaks into three. There is the glittering object presented by the two men for display. Colonel Pickering, unlike the genial buffer presented in “My Fair Lady”, is here played as every much a partner-in-play as Professor Higgins. The elocution scene is played without scenery in close-up. In its harshness, physicality and repetitiveness it relegates “The Rain in Spain” to another universe.

When Eliza returns from the Ambassador’s Reception she is lit only from above. The effect is of a museum object. In terms of the acting challenge it is one thing to be the last act woman taking command of her independence. But the real challenge is to be convincing as the flower girl of Act One. Linguistically it is quite difficult to get a Lisson Grove accent without falling over the precipice of “mockney.” It sounded right to my ear, “wah-ahm?” for “what harm?” and “flaahrs” for “flowers”. With no mention of a voice coach it is presumably all down to the sharp ear of player, director and assistant director Steven Elliott.

Ms Dylan also employs some sharp physical detail as the ingénue in the Wimpole Street study with a jaw that juts and a lower lip drawn under her teeth. Shaw specifically wrote “horribly dirty” and dirty she indeed is, as well as scratching actively after a flea or a louse.

On tour in South Wales in 1954 John Osborne played the part of Freddy Eynsford-Hill. “Posturing wind and rubbish” was the printable half of his later view of Shaw. Shaw’s play has the albatross of “My Fair Lady” hanging about it but at ninety-three years of age it is looking pretty sprightly. I would be surprised if any of Osborne’s women are going to age as well. When Eliza says “I want a little kindness” and “I won’t be passed over” “Pygmalion” comes over as a key feminist text.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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