Shaw’s “Pygmalion” at Chichester Festival Theatre
The audience was lively by Chi standards, and that sort of swept one along…
I go to Shaw knowing that I’ll enjoy it. I’m his target demographic. That’s: intelligent, middle class, mildly well-read, quite snobbish. To be a bit more precise, that’s not so much socially snobbish, as generally superior. Shaw was, of course, stratospheric in that way. He is also a feminist and a socialist, but only of a sort, and not in a way to worry a Tory.
I have seen very few things which went really well in the big theatre at CFT. Musicals can work there, and I wonder if it’s because the performers can be miked. Certainly, Oklahoma was a recent joy, though older members of the audience didn’t respond to its artful minimalism and thought instead that it was a bit dowdy. At first I was inclined to think the theatre in the round needs big productions but that can’t be the whole point since I quite liked the account of Rattigan’s more intimate Separate Tables. Mind you, by then I’d cottoned onto wearing amplifying headsets, inspite of having perfectly good hearing. I don’t think it was auditory troubles which stopped me really liking an earlier Arcadia(the Stoppard) which can certainly fill a big space and is by a master of middle class theatrical mores (elsewhere, it has been amongst my favourite pieces). I think the essence of the thing may be that it takes a lot of vim to enliven both that particular theatre and the perma-matinee audience it attracts.
Anyway, to Pygmalion. I am much more of a fan of Honeysuckle Weeks (Eliza) than most cognoscenti. She has a weird and frightening delivery, like she’s forgotten her lines. But her urgency seems really tough, fresh and compelling and her cool was properly alabaster. She was a bit gabbly and shrieky, and that was perhaps because she wanted to address audibility issues. Phil Davis is a natural Doolittle and we were safe whenever he was on (though he could afford to take the foot off the throttle occasionally). Peter Eyre as Pickering was a proper British theatre actor, with a voice like a Fisherman’s Friend lobbed down a trawler’s hatch. Stephanie Cole as Higgins’s mother was completely reliable, as was Susie Blake’s housekeeper.
I am a huge fan of Rupert Everett, but he is often insufferable. Red Carpet is an exceptional memoir. In his documentaries he is gripping for about two-thirds of the time and the most frightful baby and bimbo for the rest. His films are a shocking mixed bag, almost all made interesting mostly by his appearance. His Higgins was sort of OK, but it was full of mannerisms which were scattered almost nervously in front of us on the off-chance we’d take to one or other of them. One couldn’t help feeling that he couldn’t take the job seriously: I wondered if we were getting Everett’s own arrogance rather than Higgins’s. However, in the last act, when Liza and Higgins have their showdown, we seemed to hit the real McCoy. It even made sense that we’d had a second chance to have an ice-cream and a stiffener in preparation.
I can easily imagine Everett making a marvellous film Higgins for Emma Thompson’s version. And Carey Mulligan might well bring more edge to its Eliza than Honeysuckle Weeks. I am not looking forward to Thompson turning the story into a silly feminist tract just because it would at a certain level – not Shaw’s – make more sense. (And of course it’s silly of Thompson to diss Audrey Hepburn, but that’s another story about all sorts of things.)
Back at the CFT, the last scene’s row felt like the core of the piece. Higgins can teach Eliza to perform, but her character was waiting for a deeper transformation. I think Shaw is saying that Higgins knows that her transformation has happened and that she, Freddie and Pickering have wrought it. Higgins wasn’t needed for it. He hadn’t noticed that quite a tough bird had been lurking there all along. He thought Eliza had always been and remained deeply common. Actually, she had never really been commonplace and was even less so now. She had always had problems, and now faced an enlarged ambition. But she would wobble and handle things. For his part, Higgins has, sadly, to admit that there are plenty of transformations he himself needs, but can’t quite be bothered with. Or maybe he’s got even greater weaknesses.