Good old George Bernard Shaw. He really knew how to write and director Peter Evans has chosen one of the earliest versions of ‘Pygmalion’ to stage at the Sydney Theatre for your viewing pleasure.
There has been criticism levelled at me of late that I don’t tell my readers enough of the story. So if the following summary of 'Pygmalion' is not enough, I suggest you stop reading, go and look it up on wikipedia and come back later. 'Pygmalion', first staged in 1912 is the original My Fair Lady story, exploring the theme of the transformative power and pitfalls of class, language and education; it’s the Cinderella story with a socialist agenda.
Let’s accept that it’s hard not to enjoy the writing- its witty banter and colourful characters mean it’s hard to get this play wrong if it’s performed well. So let’s look at the choices Evans made to give his interpretation its best chance to entertain, teach and preach with the best of Shavian intentions.
The cast really do a fabulous job, especially given the gaping holes in staging (more of that later). Andrea Demetriades’ passion and energy in playing Eliza Dolittle was terrific as was her transition into sophistication and autonomy. Marco Chiappi as Henry Higgins conveys a magnetic gruffness and was superb at filling the stage with intent and power. The support cast did a wonderful job at finding the comedy and exploiting it and carrying the weight of the text with integrity at the same time. Being able to take minor roles and make the audience feel like they are major roles is the gift of a clever artist. The actors in 'Pygmalion' made this play work and there was a sense Evans gave them some license to play and I think this sense of life on stage was a bonus in its interpretation.
This is extended in choosing an early version of the text which allows the actors to explore the reported action, the arguments and the ideas of the text and relish in the playful interaction of the characters. His choice to also abandon Shaw’s very detailed stage directions has allowed Evans and his cast to manipulate the (cavernous) space.
His choice to also employ a dramaturg in Toby Schmitz was also a smart move to aid in unpacking the script and its complexities. Add to that, there’s something so deliciously subversive about Schmitz that suggest he is a good choice in analysing the possibilities of function and style.
OK- so having said all that, what didn’t quite work? Let’s start with the obvious…the set (or lack thereof). Whilst I understand the rationale of avoiding clutter and providing a magnifying glass to explore relationships, I think it’s a cop out. The Sydney Theatre is an epic space and it demands use. If you want to leave your stage bare, go to a space that allows the intimacy of that choice, such as the Wharf Theatre. The gaping expanse of Sydney Theatre means the actors work as hard as they can and if they have a lapse in energy, there is nowhere to hide. I can only imagine how much energy the cast expend in filling that space night after night.
I also think the choice of no set is the cheat’s way out of the anachronisms of time. Does it want to be set in 1912 or contemporary times? Evans leaves that one floating out there but to the audience it just feels like a lack of commitment.
The empty stage also highlights issues in sound. When actors hit centre stage you can hear their lines reverberate around the space and is not the quality of staging we have come to expect from a STC production.
Finally the choice of using live video feeds in moments of the play, which can give theatre the elusive close up, also means the action on the big screen can eclipse what is happening on stage. Once again, the cast are left with the challenge of competing with a moving split focus. The very end video image also didn’t seem to know why it was there and even the long-time subscribers sitting next to me asked me what that meant. Are we suggesting Eliza Doolittle and Higgins might come together or has Higgins just turned into a dirty stalker?? I think what is an interesting idea didn’t have a clear function or rationale and therefore the play ends with a bit of whimper.
But if you can excuse the space of its distractions, 'Pygmalion' embraces a strong narrative and cast and for our more conservative theatregoers, there’s not an expletive in sight. And a show you can take your mum to can’t be that bad.