Review: Pygmalion at Nuffield Theatre

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80%
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Great

A thoughtful production that explores Pygmalion further than Shaw himself did.

  • 8

“One flower girl. Two experts. Free lessons. Six months. Duchess required.”

Pygmalion is a curious play to see performed. For all those that aren’t familiar with it, it’s a George Bernard Shaw play from 1913 that addresses issues with the rigid British class system, namely the worth of Cockey accents versus Received Pronunciation. Professor Henry Higgins conducts an experiment to transform the accent and attitude of a working-class girl until she can pass as a Lady, and transform into gentility. However, Sam Pritchard’s production is a contemporary and modern exploration of Shaw’s play, bringing in new elements and adapting the messages to a modern audience.

The main character remains a Professor of Phonetics of a higher class. However, they replace Eliza’s Doolittle’s cockney accent for a broad northern accent, one that in London amidst perfect RP accents is particularly jarring. The contemporary reworking of the play takes away from the historical context, whereby class mobility is less accessible. Therefore, Pritchard’s version focuses on the power and purpose of speech and language more closely, and the relationship between Higgins and Doolittle.

The play began with a projection of each actors’ lines, on a large board. However, their voices were not their own, as they were mouthing pre-recorded lines, an evident hint at the events to come in the play with Doolittle’s voice being forced from her. Equally, the voices used for almost each actor were deliberately different. With the audience being able to read the lines while seeing the character, it made them unintentionally slip their own expectations of voice and stereotype onto their appearance. One notable example was when a young Asian man came on (Gavi Singh Chera) and spoke with an aged, posh, English accent, provoking laughter from the audience. Yet, one almost felt a certain guilt at expecting something else.

Equally, with Colonel Pickering, Professor Henry Higgins’ associate, his casual modern clothing, black skin, but posh middle-class voice raised the same issue. Why would you expect any different? The diversity of the cast – old, young, black, white, male, female – and the variety of brilliantly performed characters supports this and develops perfectly what Pygmalion is trying to say in a modern context: the inherent triviality of accents. Higgins’ obsession with the importance of how one speaks represents the root of the problem, the expectation of one speech seems to exemplify judging a book by its cover. This play is one that I feel does this subtly, but effectively. The curiosity I had, bordering on scepticism, was soon relieved when I realised that the play was an extremely effective adaptation and one that explores Pygmalion further than Shaw himself did.

Another moment in the play that deserves to be noted is a scene where Higgins makes a rap/dance track from Doolittle’s and the other characters’ speech, and sounds. The scene begins as one that is simply comical. Doolittle is stuck in a recording booth, while all the other actors dance to a backing track made from her reciting the alphabet. But thinking about this in hindsight, this is a perfect exploration into the nature of language and its malleability. Watching this scene with the letters A, B, C, and D being repeated makes them gradually lose their meaning. While this is not a play that demands such thought, it is one that makes the audience think about their own accent, and their attitudes towards other people’s characters. Does someone’s accent determine their personality, or their legitimacy? (see the poem “Them and [Uz], by Tony Harrison.) Hopefully it doesn’t.

Pygmalion is at Nuffield until May 13th. 

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