Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 23 – May 25, 2019
Playwright: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Deborah Mulhall
Cast: Colleen Cook, Steve Corner, Tiffany Hoy, Lisa Kelly, Emilia Kriketos, Natasha McDonald, Mark Norton, Robert Snars, Shan-Ree Tan, Sean Taylor, Vitas Varnas, Emma Wright, Tricia Youlden
Images by Bob Seary
The most gratifying aspect of Eliza Doolittle’s story is her refusal to be content with a life of misery, no matter what form it takes. Whether an impoverished flower girl, or a faux aristocrat, she is compelled to break free of shackles, as soon as she identifies an opportunity to do so. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion talks about independence, and dares to place a feminine figure at the centre of speculations, in a work that tries to unpack the implications of class in British society, along with twentieth century notions of personal autonomy. Having coincided with the suffragette movement of the 1910’s, Pygmalion can be seen as a remnant of early feminism, with a female lead determined to discover the conditions for freedom, even if the playwright does put her through an unyielding series of torturous circumstances.
It is a wordy script, that Deborah Mulhall tries to overcome as director, by injecting speed and energy into its rendering. There are no indulgent pauses and few languid moments of sentimentality, resulting in a show full of vim and vigour. Intellectual complexities are occasionally compromised, in the absence of space for meaningful rumination, but the production holds our attention adequately for the duration, perhaps trusting that we would attain some degree of poignancy in the hours thereafter. Mulhall’s steampunk costumes, although well executed, are a curious addition, for a narrative not of any science-fiction or fantasy genre. Tom Bannerman’s remarkable set design is stylish, and cleverly conceived to facilitate dynamic stage action.
Actor Emma Wright is a strong Eliza, playful but firm in her interpretation of the classic role. Technically accomplished, yet an instinctual presence and emotionally rich, Wright’s modern approach is a wonderfully refreshing take of that familiar persona. An impassioned Steve Corner elevates the Henry Higgins character, to someone much more vulnerable than is conventionally depicted, for unexpected layers to the story that prove highly rewarding. Colonel Pickering is less surprising, but nonetheless effectively portrayed by Shan-Ree Tan, who impresses with one of the more sturdy performances from its supporting cast.
At the end, we understand that Eliza wants to be her own person, unbeholden to anyone. We also realise that in England a hundred years ago, spaces for women to thrive independently are not yet widely established. Eliza’s fate was not an optimistic one. With the passage of time, we certainly feel more able to operate in accordance with our individual sovereign wishes. Women are gainfully employed like never before, in areas of work unimaginable a century ago, and access continues to widen as we persist with the dismantlement of barriers. Progress is undeniable. If only we would stop our prejudice and judgement on women who look and sound different.