Peter HallÂ’s production of Pygmalion at the Old Vic this summer, as its extended run would attest, captured the hearts and minds of audiences in much the same way as the wildly popular original did at His MajestyÂ’s Theatre in 1914. I was lucky enough to squeeze in a viewing, and although the play was nearing the end of its time at the historic building at the end of The Cut, seats were nevertheless filled, even on a damp Thursday evening. Both bars were heaving with the genuine cross-section of London society that can only ever be found at the theatre, but more importantly, from the moment the curtain rose, this production felt as fresh and alive as on opening night.
The story, of course, is so familiar to most of us as to have passed unquestioned into popular culture. Adaptations have appeared on episodes of The Simpsons and in art films galore, from Six Degrees of Separation to Metropolitan. Henry Higgins, upper class eccentric and professor of linguistics, wagered and assisted by his rather more sedate friend Colonel Pickering, aims to transform Eliza, a cockney flower-girl, into a duchess, with a court ball serving as the litmus test of her success. Along the way, both the arrogant professor and his blossoming protÃ©gÃ© learn something about themselves, and make almost insupportable personal sacrifices in pursuit of their goals. Beyond the superficialities of the plot, Shaw cleverly exposes the idiosyncrasies and paradoxes of Edwardian society, today vaunted as being among the most hierarchical and inflexible of the modern age. The modern, mobile society that Eliza personifies, aided by Professor Higgins, leaves its members feeling adrift and intimidated. ElizaÂ’s father, burdened with new and unwanted wealth, finds his carefree existence eradicated by the pressures of prosperity and respectability, while ElizaÂ’s innocence and freedom has been destroyed by HigginsÂ’ unwanted gift that leaves her as far above her former station as she is below her new one. ShawÂ’s opus is a play filled with unhappy people, a view vindicated even further by the privilege of hindsight granted to we, the twenty-first century audience. Within a matter of months of the playÂ’s London opening, this world of genteel at-homes and glittering soirees would be swept away by war and disaster. The knowledge of the tragedy that awaits the sorry people scurrying on the stage casts the whole production in a curiously sombre light, and with this in mind, it is perhaps apt that Hall, never known for excessive light-heartedness (he directed the English premiere of Waiting for Godot) chooses to retain ShawÂ’s original, and curiously disliked ending. In marked contrast to the rather saccharine sweetness of the musical adaptation, and its beloved film version, the playÂ’s final scene sees Eliza confess an impossible love for Higgins, and depart to marry the silly and near destitute young blood Freddie Eynsford-Hill. Higgins himself, restrained by arrogance, pride and snobbery, cannot bring himself to treat Eliza as anything more than the flower-girl he first took into his dubious patronage, and is left to miserable solitude.
Pygmalion is indeed a curious mix of extreme comedy and extreme pathos, and the cast, to a man, do an admirable job of carrying off this difficult piece with not merely competence, but aplomb. Michelle Dockery as Eliza and Tim-Pigott-Smith as Higgins are particularly noteworthy; the strange chemistry they exude on stage makes their characterÂ’s bittersweet friendship utterly believable. The clever sets and weather effects enhance, rather than overpower, the acting, and overall, this reviewer finds himself wishing he had the chance to see Pygmalion again Â– for all its extended run, this is one production that must surely be sorely missed.