The story of Pygmalion is a well known one: across the famous movie, musical and original play, a professor bets he can transform the life of a flower girl by teaching her proper English rather than her cockney dialect. And so begins the transformation of Eliza Doolittle, from commoner to Duchess, propelled into society life by Professor Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering. The Australian Shakespeare Company’s production is a sharp exploration of social and gender inequality, transformation and awakening of self-respect that is still relevant more than 100 years after the show was written, performed for a limited season at the Atheneum 2.
Pygmalion feels like a very different show with a very different tone to My Fair Lady the musical, so those who are fans of the musical will find this a different but equally eloquent experience. Well known moments from the story line like ‘The Rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’ or ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face’ from the musical do not appear in Bernard Shaw’s original source material, and Pygmalion feels distinctly darker, more manipulative and almost abusive in treatment to Eliza. It is a much less romantic, gritty story that still has moments of light and interesting questions raised about social classes and standing, transformation, respect and compassion and more. Greg Carroll’s direction of the show is well handed with a thorough understanding of the time period and social inequality of the time when it was written, yet brings to light the universality of the themes in the show.
Genevieve Kingsford as Eliza Doolittle is just divine: Kingsford is scruffy, boisterous and rough and transforms to a warm and eloquent, intelligent young woman. She is naïve, abrasive and tough all in one, and she gives 110% into her performance, with her energy, wholesomeness and warmth unmatched on the stage. Her impressive range is on show as she goes from crazed urchin to steely, self- respected and decisive woman, and as she breaks down, shows her anger and puts herself back together again.
Andrew Cullimore’s performance as Henry Higgins is of a manic, boisterous and rude man with a charming and well-versed tongue and a manipulative, almost cruel streak. He is completely engrossed in character and is a force to be reckoned with on stage, becoming almost hard to watch in his brilliant, self-obsessed portrayal.
Philip Hayden is a welcome relief as Colonel Pickering as the voice of reason and a softer, more rational and kind counterpart to Cullimore’s Higgins, who thinks he is almost god like, compared to Pickering’s curiosity, kindness and warmth. The two men have a magnetic chemistry and friendship on stage, compared to Higgins and Eliza’s strained, vague but strong chemistry which questions what is their relationship, and what will it become – love, friendship, respect, or nothing at all?
Syd Brisbane is unforgettable as the rough around the edges Alfred Doolittle, as quick witted and well spoken as Higgins with none of the lofty ambition and provides some welcome comic relief and chuckles from the audience. Rounded out with an equally talented cast including Elizabeth Brennen as Clara, Martin Moolman as Freddy, Helen Hopkins as Mrs Higgins, and Leah Baulch as Mrs Hill/ Mrs Pearce, this show is brimming with talent.
While the set, in it’s minimalistic nature, is very effective and well constructed to create distinctly different spaces with very few props, the lengthy scene changes with their awkward and poorly queued music and extensive use of closing and opening curtains greatly distract from the pace and momentum the show is trying to create. There isn’t always enough lighting on central characters in the middle of the space, and sometimes it seemed to change colour for no reason, but it usually complimented the set and the effective minimalist look the show has achieved.
This witty and challenging production of Pygmalion plays at the Atheneum 2 for one more week, until Saturday 23 June.
For more information and tickets: https://www.shakespeareaustralia.com.au/productions/pygmalion/
Images:Australian Shakespeare Company / Supplied.