August 11 – 17
Years before it became “My Fair Lady”, “Pygmalion” proved to be George Bernard Shaw’s most popular play, but not sentimentally so. Rather, the playwright used the 1913 story of transformation as a social commentary, to expose (rather than glorify) misogyny. And in their ambitious interpretation, QUT Bachelor of Fine Art Acting and Technical Production students certainly do this intent justice.
Things open on a rainy night in London’s Covent Garden market. A varied group gathers together under a bus shelter, satirically postered with a Narcissist perfume advertisement. Among them are a couple of colourful flower sellers… literally, given their vibrant costumes. And so the show’s dynamic aesthetic is established, not just visually but through multi-media, music, dance and even a later mid-scene rap.
The story begins as the lurking Professor of Phonetics, Henry Higgins (Harley Wilson) emerges to converse with common flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Meg Fraser). She is deliciously low in the eyes of the celebrated Higgins (who is himself far from the charmer of the musical film adaptation), but she has a quick ear that allows him to later accept a bet from his sensitive sidekick Colonel Pickering (Daniel Gabriel) that he can turn her into someone who speaks English like a duchess.
Before long a couple of months of lessons have passed and Eliza is taken to meet Higgens’ mother (Maeve Hook) and the visiting Eynsford-Hills (Olivia Bird, Maddy Exarhos and Michael Vandersande). Although she now speaks in beautifully modulated tones, it is still sometimes in delivery of her usual turns of phrase. And in make-up for no ‘rain in Spain’ there is still hilarity in Eliza’s new small talk with updated shock factor. But this is just the beginning of her troubles.
The modernised, but not entirely contemporary take, works well, with microphones and video cameras facilitating Higgins’ science of speech studies, meaning that even dialogue talk of pounds and pence is not jarring. In particular, full backdrop screen projections add another layer to aspects like Eliza’s linguistic lessons. An exciting soundtrack also enhances interest, particularly in its use of Panic at the Disco’s high energy ‘Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time’, including ‘Rock Lobster’ sample, during which live video footage takes the audience backstage along with actors to party with the crew around the props table et al.
Even if they sometimes appear a little extraneous to the story, aesthetically rich and rewarding moments such as this, capture the appeal of the show, both old and new. And while its characteristically witty writing remains, in for example Higgins’ self-important comments about women and how they upset everything, reactions from the audience to the sexism of his statements illustrate the play’s vintage.
Although accents are not always sustained, in their final public performance while training at QUT, the third-year actors, all do an excellent job. By George, Harley Wilson captures the more multi-layered character of this Henry Higgins, barely bridled in his enthusiasm for his recreation experiment and ill-manneredly unconcerned about the problem of the afterwards. Indeed, his initial mockery of Eliza and physical comedy bring many laughs, along with Meg Graser’s physical nuance of little movements and gestures, even when in the background of the action. She gives an extremely assured performance as Eliza, not only in her transformed rebellion, but in her early groaning, moaning and boo-hooing about being a respectable girl who means no harm but wants to speak more gentle to work in a flower shop. And they ably supported by the others on-stage, especially by Molly Burnett as Higgins’ matter-of-fact housekeeper Miss Pearce, who serves as a voice of reason, foreshadowing revolt in her wonder as to what is to become of Eliza after Higgins has finished his teaching. Michael Vandersande is a similar standout as the put-upon Freddy, enchanted by Eliza upon first meeting her. His high-pitched enthusiasm amplifies his socially awkward persona, but in an endearing way.
Clearly, “Pygmalion” has stood the test of time, because it is a comedy, but also so much more, based as it is on the classical myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with the statue of a woman he has made. Its reworking now, more true to is dark comedy than exploration of romantic clichés, highlights Shaw’s feminist views which provides a more of a modern resonance than ever. And, along with its talented acting and David Bell’s visionary direction, this is what makes this production such a success.