Reviewed by James Karas
Pygmalion, directed for the Shaw Festival by Peter Hinton, has gone through a number of transformations. For openers, it is set in 2014 and 2015 and there are changes in language, setting, and general behaviour that are quite different from the play that Bernard Shaw wrote and the way we have seen or imagined the play being done.
Who did it? I looked through the programme for someone being given credit as a dramaturg, adapter, meddler, improver and you-name-it and found none. Maybe I just missed it.
Jeff Meadows as Colonel Pickering, Harveen Sandhu as Eliza Doolittle and Patrick McManus as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. Photo by David Cooper.
The opening scene does take place in front of St. Paul’s Church Covent Garden but that is where the departure from the play as written begins. Professor Higgins is wearing sneakers, blue jeans and sports a backpack. He arrives on a bicycle and the characters around are a grab bag of locals and perhaps tourists.
The idea that Higgins and Pickering will transform the flower seller Eliza into a lady by changing her accent goes by the board quickly because the accents of the characters are not that different so as to convince us that how you say the rain in Spain will tell us your social status.
Just in case we don’t grasp that, we are shown a part of a BBC documentary outlining that the old class differences have changed since the time of the play in pre-World War I London.
There are numerous changes, large, small and at times incomprehensible. The origin of some of the characters is changed. Doolittle will get married in St. Paul’s Knightsbridge instead of St. George’s Hanover; Mrs. Higgins has a showroom with pretty women and men modelling clothes; there is a camera crew following Alfred Doolittle around as if he were a big celebrity. He just got a pension of forty thousand pounds a year and was asked to lecture on moral philosophy.
Higgins has a tablet and monitors in his house and there are the usual paraphernalia of 21st century life in London.
Peter Krantz, Mary Haney, Jeff Meadows and Patrick McManus. Photo by David Cooper.
As the whole world knows when asked if she will walk across the park Eliza answers “not bloody likely” and the world faints at the remark. In My Fair Lady, based on Pygmalion, of course, the remark was downgraded to “move your blooming arse” addressed to a horse. There is not much wiggle room left and, you guessed it, Eliza says “not f…g likely” this time around.
Harveen Sandhu does make an effective and likeable Eliza. She is assertive and unapologetic from the start. She shows no deference to Higgins even at the beginning. She is a tough woman and I found the flower-girl-to-duchess transformation by way of a thorough change of accent simply did not register very effectively.
Patrick McManus’s Higgins is a hippie in clothing and manners but he is very intelligent and his rudeness comes or can only come from someone who belongs to the upper crust.
Jeff Meadows’s Pickering is likeable and gentlemanly. He arrives from Afghanistan and not from India and Higgins is able to deduce that by hearing him say a few words but that is in the play.
Peter Krantz plays the invariably hilarious dustman, Alfred Doolittle. Krantz overacts abominably but he gets the laughs.
Sometimes I feel that all I see are adaptations of classics, especially of plays not written in English. With the latter there is the inevitable need to translate them but is Shaw so far gone that we can’t appreciate him? “Not bloody likely” may not have the same impact today that it had a century ago but that is true of many situations. Social and linguistic changes are inevitable. When We Are Married was based on the joke of a couple not being married. No one would give a smidgeon of feces these days about the situation today. Does that mean J. B. Priestley’s play should not have been produced last year?
Not bloody likely.
Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw continues in repertory until October 24, 2015 at the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.