Sunday, February 19, 2012


Sydney Theatre Company presents PYGMALION by George Bernard Shaw at the Sydney Theatre.

What is best about this production of PYGMALION by George Bernard Shaw is the opportunity to hear and see this text by one of the great writer's for the theatre. I believe it is the first time that I have seen or heard it on the stage. Read it, of course, many times and know the beautifully bowdlerised version of it called MY FAIR LADY both on stage and film.

In this production by Peter Evans for the Sydney Theatre Company, a production conceived with an eye to it being a school text and therefore coming with a possible captive audience - box office pleaser - the design concept seems to have focused on stripping the play down - to permit  a searching interrogation of the text by the actor and audience with little other distractions. Although Robert Cousins is attributed as the set designer, even Cate Blanchett in her post show thanks, alluded to one that is rather "a lack of set". To wit, I mean the play is presented in the bare black box of the architectural shape of the space. It is simply the walled black hole facing the auditorium. A few contemporary contextual props, camera, screens, micro-phones on stands, x-ray views of the human skull etc,  to possibly  popularly update the principal character's profession, that of a phonetician. Add a few  spare necessary pieces of approximate Edwardian furniture to give historical and physical location to the different scenic definitions by Shaw,  scattered around the vast cavity, augmented by efficient lighting of a practical rather than atmospheric bent (Damien Cooper) and a fairly underused and/or underconceived AV Design for further distraction or illumination (Sean Bacon), one has, less is more as the scenic offers.

The intention, I guess, was to focus the production onto the interrogation of the arguments of this play - which follows in the tradition of Mr Shaw's usual intentions as a writer to a disquisition of ideas and important social and metaphysical issues concerning mankind. That he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1925, having previously declined it, is meritoriously amplified even with this text - to the surprise of some of my friends, for undoubtedly there are other plays of his that are even more thrilling to encounter both intellectually (and comically). That this production succeeds in doing this, I observed in the unusual intensity of the still and absorbed interest that the audience I was with, attended to the proceedings. Not since that artistic and box office triumph, for the STC of Michael Frayn's COPHENGAHGEN have I sat with an audience so intent, so full of attention to the spoken word and its subtleties of argument.

This was despite the infamous acoustic obstacle presented by this theatre. The actors were assisted with personal microphone adjustments and yet the discipline of the performers and the audience was (still is, I alarmingly understand), forced to a high effortful capacity of interaction and dependency to have a sensible time together. The physical and technical wear on the actors must be immense - maybe medically stressful (OH&S officers, where are you?). This choice to strip out this theatre space, which we have once before disastrously experienced having been done: the Cheek by Jowl, production of OTHELLO, a few years ago -  ought to have alerted the artistic team responsible for the productions presented in the Sydney Theatre as to the difficulties that were going to be encountered. This theatre space what ever the physical aesthetic visual design may be, needs, surely,  to be solved first from the most advantageous acoustical shapes to promote clear and reasonable assistance to the communication of the voices, and  so the text, to the audience. No voice clarity, no communication, no play. Bring on the mimes or dancers. It is easy for the creative team, other than the actors who must practice their craft and art every performance literally in their designed problem, to ignore this practical demand and not give proper regard to the actors and ultimately the paying audience difficulties in this space when so sparely created.

It is then, the  design solution by the artistic team that provides many obstacles to this production. The naked concentration forced upon the actors is then Olympian in its demands and for the most part, at least on opening night the actors were giving bravely and clearly. If the acting in this cavernous space lacked subtlety of expression it was perforce the stringencies of the designed (or lack of design) space rather  than the aesthetic nuances/instincts of the actors.

The women in the company seemed, generally, to handle these problems best. Deborah Kennedy is intelligently, mordantly clever in her vocal characterisation of the practical 'mother figure', the house keeper, Mrs Pearce.  Vanessa Downing strikes the right frigid class notes and stupidity with accuracy as the stereotyped middle class snob Mrs Eynsford Hill, while  Harriet Dyer as her daughter, Clara, in a strikingly and unusual reading, scores contemporary laughter references with strangulated ease - if a little forced at times. Wendy Hughes seems to suffer most in this space and the authority, the vocal command of Mrs Higgins is somehow diminished and lacks a proper dominating balance that should be required in her scenes with her son, Henry.

Andrea Demetriades, making her debut with the Sydney Theatre Company, but, who we have seen, in beautifully shaped performances for Bell Shakespeare in PERICLES (as Marina) and TWELFTH NIGHT (as Viola), gives a remarkably assured and meticulously calibrated performance of gradual growth and revelation of the flowering Eliza Doolittle. Dressed in contemporary garb (Costume Design, Mel Page) Ms Demitriades sculpts from scene to scene the raw material of the 'gutter snipe' girl, to bargaining shopper for training, to her gradual growth to successful puppet, to useful servant, to awakening and awakened being, to assertive independence, equal and daunting to the creator, the creator of this happy 'monster': Professor Henry Higgins. There is a wisdom in her control of her instrument in its vocal expression and the natural physical grace of this actress transcends into a beauty that would, indeed, have transfixed the Pygmalion, the hero of the original story, as he was with his marble statue that came to life as his Galatea. The crowning gift that Ms Demitriades brings to this performance of Eliza is an easeful intelligence to accurate textual argument - it gives the  appearance of discovery and applied constructive thought that elucidates the growing power of this experiment.between the men in her life and her awakened self within the rules of her society. An unconscious example for the struggling suffragettes of the Shavian period, the feminists of our time, too, perhaps.

In a very interesting essay on the play in the theatre program: "Pygmalion Meets The Twentieth Century Woman" Penny Gay writres: "Like so many young women of early twentieth-century literature, Eliza wants, not the pretty dresses and vapid conversation of ladies at upper-class garden parties, but the opportunity to work and make her own life. ... and he (Shaw ) clearly valued such women's energy, drive and performative power. Eliza is a superb embodiment of these qualities".

Shaw had a peculiar and totally fascinating history of interaction with the women in his life. A bachelor of outspoken beliefs, he married late (at 41) to a fellow socialist,  a member of the Fabian Society, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, but still continued a series of impassioned flirtations with women of immense gifts and charisma. One of these was the actress, Mrs Patrick (Stella) Campbell, and it was with her in mind that he wrote the play PYGMALION. The power of his relationship with his own mother (Bessie), shrouded most of Shaw's interactions with the opposite sex. His biography by Michael Holroyd - a three volume behemoth published in 1988-89-91, is a tauntingly wondrous puzzle of analytical wizardry. That she is a dominant spectre to many of his female protagonists creations is evident and his quizzical declaration in one of my favourite plays of his, HEARTBREAK HOUSE, that women are the devil's grand daughters and slaves to the life force is a repeated half truth/joke that he held dearly to the core of his self and re-iterated tirelessly in his writings.

The final act struggle between Eliza and Henry Higgins is a cause for much thrilling battle observation between the sexes for the audience. It is so nuanced, that the stillness in the house on the night I saw the play underlined the grip that this clever playwright with these determined actors, speaking and arguing his text, despite the obstacles of the space, had on the contemporary audience. That I went home and pulled down the play text from my library to revise it while it was still vivid in my memory, is testament to the power of good writing. More of it please.

Marco Chiappi, a Melbourne actor, as Henry Higgins creates a tantalising possibility of the man as written by Shaw. Intellectually it is all in place. However, I felt that there was a distracting concentration on physical characterisation (a tendency by this actor) to embody the Shavian vision, that really is unnecessary if the text is just said and moved as Shaw envisions. The physical life was over-endowed and distracting to the overall clarity of Higgins' dilemma. Crumpled, curled and inclined to stiff twitches. Less may have been best. Mr Chiappi loses empathy to the simple physical directness of Ms Demitriades creation, although Henry is not an altogether pleasant man and we may be prejudiced towards him instinctively, today. Shaw subtitled the play "A Romance". By this he meant the romance of the possibility of the Edwardian 'gutter snipe' rising to a place of class distinction through self direction, effort. A touch of the Cinderella about Eliza - a fairy tale. He emphatically denied a romance between Eliza and Henry and wrote an after play essay and directed his translators firmly that all suggestions that they will marry be avoided. He never denied the sexual tensions between them and the longing but knew that the enormous differences between them would not placate the Life Force and that boring but privileged and young Freddy Eynsford Hill would be the mate for Eliza (a premise that Mr Stokes view of Freddy may be harder to believe). Mr Shaw's living engagment with "Stella" was evidence enough of that for him, what with his patient wife, informed and waiting on the side lines. The sexual tension, suspension, between the two protagonists at the end of the play is a supremely comic 'piss-take' that Shaw has with his audience. Indeed, he was Irish remember - and a provocateur to the end!

David Woods, as Alfred Doolittle, the father of Eliza, in the sub plot concerning the rise of the undeserving poor, through the opportunities availed on him with a gift of money in exchange for lectures on his personal philosphy of living, is remarkably attractive particularly in the second act encounter, but for some reason does not fully clinch the character development and argument in his return as a wealthy but blighted man. Kim Gyngell as Colonel Pickering is simply a presence and does not seem to have discovered why the character is even in the play. Curious, indeed.

One of the strength's of Mr Evans approach, I reckon, is not to see this play as simply a festival of talking heads, debating intellectual concepts, but rather flesh and blood animals pursuing the means to survive possessed of brains and vitally, passionately connected to that objective. Shaw was a man of the theatre. He often attended rehearsals and was excitedly involved in the evolution of not only his writings for the theatre but of others as well. A champion of the theatre as the centre of civilization. Mr Stoppard and Hare similarly inspired today and heirs to this very neglected genius in performance.

A curate's egg then. I recommend the play immensely. The staged reading of it, if the voices can be heard and are wearing well, a reason to go. As a theatrical production so denuded of visual theatrical impact with such startling absence of design, a point of aggravation for most. And even as an offer to school audiences, with perhaps the fore knowledge that this may be their first encounter in the theatre, an element of such seduction being missing, may be counterproductive, if encouraging new audiences is part of this company's corporate objectives for producing PYGMALION. A cynical reason to choose the play, I would venture. The directorial approach is just a little too academic. I hope that the lesson learned by our masters of what we get to see, take note that Shaw is an attractive draw card for an audience - theatrical intelligence always wins an audience when offered with such wit and intellectual panache.

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