“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”
G B Shaw.

There has been a slight grumble amongst reviewers and punters alike about the design of this production… Not because of the amount of blood, or vomit or dildos (common fare on Sydney’s stages it seems these days) but there is a horrified stunned silence at the “non” set of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. My dear friend James Waites refers to it in his write up… “I thought I would never say this, being such a Robert Cousins fan. But the set design is a minor catastrophe.” – but for Waites, it’s the acoustics that worries him the most – that a lack of set sucks the sound up and back into the brick work of the building you can read more here:
For others it is the question of the ticket price… up to $130 a ticket, and yet there’s no set. Well there is. There is furniture and Kim Gyngell, and Deborah Kennedy and Wendy Hughes lighting up the stage with grand luminosity – they are undeniable legends of the theatre – they are what “set” the elevated tone of this production.

But I’m not too fussed about discussing decor. Never have been… but it gives you a reason why my AustralianStage review starts with the discussion of set. Look – it’s a well put together show (granted – the “AV” mentioned in other reviews, was not present on the night I attended… um who cares?) Also the performances are great, the direction is clever (especially for the brief)… it’s a quality show, no doubt… so I don’t want to waste time blathering on about the individual attributes of how good each individual is in the show…

What I really want to do is talk about the ideas in and the sheer delight of the play.

OK? Let’s cut to the chase.

Pygmalion has for sometime been saddled with the unfortunate and overwhelming success of My Fair lady. Unfortunate, because the play is bigger, meaner, wiser, smarter and much more political (socially and economically) than the beautifully entertaining musical is. Another point I want to make up-front that I did disagree with the very twee “The World of Pygmalion” page in the program which, like the back of a Hire DVD that suggests other movies you might also like, suggest Pygmalion-sympathetic products you might like to “Read,” “Watch,” “Drink”, “Listen” “Wear” and “Eat.”

Oh dear! Mr Shaw, as a passionate socialist, who believed that art had to be political, would be absolutely furious! Shaw, despite moving in elevated circles was in his own way fairly punk – a socialist, a vegetarian, an atheist… and I doubt this “World of Pygmalion” page would have been included in Shaw’s notes. The further irksomeness of this page is that Pretty Woman is included in this list – mainly because we see a prostitute’s dependence on her client perpetuated in her love story – which I believe is the antithesis of Pygmalion.

I have been carrying a yellowed copy of Pygmalion around with me for the last week… I have read the foreword, the “end” of the Eliza and Higgins story written in Prose by Shaw… I have read it over and over.

But what strikes me hardest and most about Peter Evans’ production of this play is the careful balance of Higgins as child and master creator. We balk and shrink from his misgyny and arrogance and his overly self-important pompousness – but really, without it Eliza would not have sufficient cause to push away and find herself strong and independent in her own right. Being a wife – a subservient human fetching and supplying and kow-towing to Higgins is a life of truely trapped servitude… what Higgins does, in being so unbearable is, set her free. It is in this final scene where in I saw what a sacrifice he makes: foregoing his potential partnering of she whom he has grown accustomed to – just like that of a parent or a teacher or a lover – to give her the propulsion to go and make something of herself without him.

Through an act that looks and smells like selfishness, Higgins, infact loses that which he loves – his creation – his companion. A true act of self-lessness dressed up as selfishness – and ultimately very effective in it’s objective.

The easy thoughts of this play are everywhere – yes, and easilly accessible to the left leaning affluent audience handing over their hard earned cash to see a set-less stage. The women (Mrs Higgins and Ms Spence) are both wiser than Higgins. yes Higgins is a little boy who has temper-tantrums when things don’t go his way. Yes the high status people aren’t always the smartest – or the ones with the most potential.

There’s so much I want to say about this play, this production… but I think I’ll reserve it for an intense dinner conversation… and no, it won’t be over the “french meal” whilst I listen to gramaphone records, sip champagne, whilst casually dropping quotes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis into the soup. I promise.

This review was written for

In the tradition of the grand theatre’s of the world – the curtain has been the primary trigger of a “reveal” to an audience. The curtain has hidden the scuffling and shuffling about of actors and assistant/back stage managers back stage, out of sight. Then a moment of pause before the curtain rises, revealing a new world or reality to delight the anticipating eye.

At the time of the premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, there was divide between a tendency/ trend towards a naturalistic setting (set up by Ibsen) and then of course, a revolt to the more stylized (by Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig). For those who enjoy the guilt frame of an embellished proscenium arch theatre – Sydney Theatre Company’s Pygmalion will leave you a little dumb-founded. This is not a production encased in a richly detailed set. This is not about visual impact, it is a production which puts the story, more over character, firmly in the centre of its sight.

Taking his inspiration from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, best found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, wherein a sculptor falls in love with his own creation, George Bernard Shaw’s play is billed as a “Romance in five acts.” However this is more than a weak-wristed romance of traditional role-play. This is a beautifully crafted text, which has much to say not only about the value of language, status, education and the joys and sorrows of work, but true love.

Rain drenched and desperate, Eliza Doolittle (Andrea Demetriades) struggles onto stage, coercing and defending and offering in equal measure. She is outside the theatre, struggling to sell an armful of flowers to patrons eager to find a cab for their journey home. Before long, a gentleman with a notebook, Henry Higgins (Marco Chiappi) wages with Colonel Pickering (Kim Gyngell) that he will be able to revolutionize Eliza’s uncouth diction and savage manners into a lady, into that of a Duchess at a ball.

The next day we find Eliza fronting up to Wimpole Street with the aspiration of elevated elocution in order to become “a lady in a flower shop.” Challenge accepted, Pickering and Higgins set to work on Eliza’s transformation.

Evan’s direction is slick and no-fuss, he focuses on the characters and their wish to propel the story. Dramaturgically, this is not man versus world, (nor society) but man versus himself. Higgins (Marco Chiappi) as the linguistic genius –prone to tantrums and displays of childish arrogance is kept in check by a stern and patient housekeeper, Mrs Spence (Deborah Kennedy) and his mother Mrs Higgins (Wendy Hughes.) The performances are excellent all round with Demetriades convincingly transitioning from urchin to urchin in a lady’s clothing to a lady – with great finesse.

On the evening I saw the production, there was no evidence of the audio visual element mentioned in the program – except a rather perplexing introduction and retraction of a white screen after interval. Additionally the end moment saw Higgins chasing Eliza with a hand-held camera. I found the introduction of such technology a little extraneous to the story. For without it, I was able to enjoy the struggle of my own allegiances. I was more interested in dealing with the questions within the play:

What are we left with, once we are transformed? What do we, or can we go back to? What is the plight of the middle and the upper classes. What is freedom? What is our duty to the English Language – it’s preservation and it’s disintegration? Does Higgins sacrifice himself, and his own (romantic) happiness in order to empower and inspire Eliza to pursue a life greater than fetching a man’s slippers? Does Eliza truly feel that the best she can do is marry Freddy? Should we be careful what we wish for? What if our own elevation/improvement was to be our own demise – would we still yearn for it?

Perhaps the audio visual element was to supplement a naked stage? For what it’s worth, I did not feel short changed in the slightest about the lack of flash and pomp – I found the performance of the cast to be sufficiently inspiring and intriging. Set Design by Peter Cousins, and costume design by Mel Page, were indicative of place, of status and spoke simply to the story – which is complex and fascinating enough, without having to compete with visual fuss. It’s a bold statement to have a bare stage, but an appropriate one for this production, reminding us of how voice and language has its own texture and its own weight, it’s own currency. When we hear a voice or how someone uses language we immediately make assumptions about their education, status, worthiness, occupation – we don’t need a heightened , elaborate aesthetic to “hear” that message.

Peter Evan’s Pygmalion is powerful and challenging. For some it may come in addressing the value of design, for others it may be the portrayal of gender politics/roles, for some the notion that a disintegration of language possibly been seen as an innovation (by the likes of Clara Eynsford Hill) will be depressing. For me, Evan’s production has created a tight production – metatheatrical, historical, political which lives very much in the present. It asks us to examine our own prejudices about theatre, art, marriage, language, status, money – and none of it is easy, but it is very rewarding.