Though last year marked 150 years since the birth of George Bernard Shaw, only the little Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond deigned to mark the event. But, come summer 2007, and suddenly Shaw is all over the shop.
The ink had barely cooled on the first night notices for Marianne Elliott’s intelligent and striking production of Saint Joan at the National, when Peter Hall’s solidly traditional staging of Shaw’s classic Pygmalion opened at the Theatre Royal in Bath. And though the productions are about as stylistically different as it’s possible to get, they both go some way to remind one of how potent and powerful a dramatist Shaw could be at his best.
Hall’s production is a determinedly conventional one but no less appealing for that fact. Whereas Elliott kept things simple visually speaking, Hall has opted for big, elaborate, leather arm-chair peppered sets and scene changes so lengthy that the red velvet curtains were forced to descend between acts.
This rather reverential directorial approach was helped along immensely by Michelle Dockery’s spot-on performance as Eliza Doolittle, the London flower girl who Professor Henry Higgins sweeps off the streets with the intention of making her a ‘lady.’ Or at least making her act and speak like one; in his hands she’s little more than a puppet, a project for his easily bored intellect.
Dockery was a delight in the role, nailing Eliza’s vowel-mangling cockney howl, while also conveying the pathos of her transformation, as a woman torn from the world she knows and understands, and thrust into a new land of jewels and garden parties and making small-talk about the weather, one she will never be truly at home in.
Her brilliant performance was ably complimented by Tim Piggot-Smith, as Higgins, with his baggy cardigan and his comfy slippers, and his complete lack of desire to trouble himself with normal social niceties. The affection that grows between him and his protg is subtle but genuine, though the production leaves you in no doubt as to the callousness of his behaviour towards her.
There is strong support too from Barbara Jefford as Higgins’s spirited mother, and Tony Haygarth as Eliza’s motor-mouthed father, who comes unexpectedly into money. Barry Stanton is also good as the courteous, but no less culpable, Colonel Pickering, who sees little wrong in Higgins’ scheme to transform Eliza, though he at least treats her with kindness and respect.
The ending is abrupt, ambiguous, and emotionally raw. In the climactic scenes between Higgins and Eliza you ache for him to just bend a little, to do something, anything to make her stay. You know it would only take the smallest of gestures, but he is unable to give even that much and both he and the audience are left quietly bereft, realising he has most likely lost her for good.
This is an excellent production of a play that all too easily gets mentally lumped up with its fluffy musical counterpart My Fair Lady; but it’s far better piece of theatre than that, a far harder and angrier work.