[Review] 'Pygmalion'

Shaw's miraculous play, thanks to fine productions by Peter Hall and John Dexter, has escaped from the shadow of the Lerner and Loewe musical. But this revival, directed by Philip Prowse, strikes me as a coarse, strident affair that misses much of its psychological subtlety.
Prowse's main visual idea is to indicate this is a play about theatre. So we have an upstage proscenium arch with a plush velvet curtain that parts to allow star entrances. But it is half-baked to suggest this is a play about performance.

The play's comedy and pathos rest on the fact that Higgins's triumph is also his downfall: his creation, Eliza, ultimately achieves an independence that makes it impossible for her to return to his suffocating, sexless bachelor world.

The two main actors are also imprisoned within the concept. Rupert Everett's saturnine Higgins strikes a note of rasping anger from which he scarcely shifts. There is little suggestion of either the scholarly obsessive or the sadness of a man who awakes too late to Eliza's vibrancy. While nothing can douse the comedy of Eliza's trial outing at Mrs Higgins's tea party, Honeysuckle Weeks also lacks the chiselled articulation that can endow the scene with ecstasy.

The best performances come from the peripheral characters: there is a superb cameo from Stephanie Cole as Higgins's aristocratic mother. But it's a measure of the production's crudity that it ends with a full-blown staging of Eliza's marriage to Freddy Eynsford-Hill, to which Higgins responds with angry contempt. That's a far cry from the subtlety of Shaw's conclusion, in which Higgins's laughter camouflages the desolation of the artist abandoned by his own creation.

Pygmalion - Chichester Festival Theatre - 2010

More about Honeysuckle Weeks can be found here


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