Pygmalion at The Abbey Theatre

October 24, 2013

There is an uncomfortable comparison to be made between Eliza Doolittle at the end of act four of Pygmalion and Cathleen Ni Houlihan in the present day. She too has scrubbed up and gone to the ball. But her time has passed and the question many have been asking from the beginning now has to be answered. What is to become of her, now the boys have had their fun?

Annabelle Comyn’s production wisely chooses not to state the obvious but it’s a testament to the strength of Shaw’s writing-or the tragedy of our times- that what he wrote about almost a century ago still resonates with a modern audience.

A searing satire on what constitutes a lady, and how those in society treat her, it examines issues of identity and self-worth and looks at how people use and change their character in search of advancement. A chance meeting with a professor of phonetics changes a common flower girl’s life forever when she is passed of as a beautiful duchess to prove his phonetic prowess. But what will it cost her?

The people within Shaw’s plays are often mouthpieces for the writers own socialist leanings and the sheer length of his sentences can make the lines difficult to deliver for actors- and difficult to take on board for the audience. Here the players are largely bang on form, wringing every drop of humanity out of the text without spilling a drop of the sentiment.

As the moral spine of the piece, Fiona Bell (as Mrs. Pearce) and Eleanor Methven (as Mrs. Higgins) are a joy to watch. The former, though not particularly maternal, expresses her distaste at the lack of humanity shown to Eliza who is treated like a living doll by Higgins and Pickering, while the latter’s laid back, amused approach hints at the uncharacteristic upbringing that spawned
Higgins, a man so socially retarded her friends can’t bare to be around him . “When she walked into Wimpole Street, something walked in with her” she cautions after Eliza’s first stab at coming out too society, “What’s to be done with her when it is finished”.

Lorcan Crantich devours the scenery as Mr. Doolittle whose working class rhetoric titilates Higgins and whose lack of morals disgusts Nick Dunning’s character, Pickering. He terrifies Eliza, and in turn the audience, who have seen her threatened with violence before and see now how easily that threat can become a reality. His despair at being shunted from his status as “the undeserving poor” would have been nicely countered by Mrs. Eynsford-Hill (Susannah de Wrixon) were it not for a burst of activity that overshadowed a rather nice moment where she confides her fears to Mrs. Higgins, humanizing what was, till that point, a rather ridiculous creature.

It is Risteard Cooper as Higgins who most perfectly realizes the potential within Shaw’s writing. As the confirmed old bachelor he might be a little too refined to pass for a man who would use his dressing gown as a napkin, but his self -involvement is credible so that when he says to Eliza “that shows a want of feeling” it’s not funny. It’s tragic. He really doesn’t get himself or worse- for a man who deals in language- have the words to make Eliza see who he really is.

Shaw previously acknowledged that a complete representation of the play was only possible on the cinema screen or on stages furnished with exceptionally elaborate machinery. The Abbey Theatre is such a stage and Paul O Mahoney’s magnificent sets tip its hat to the silver screen, most notably in the changeover between the pillared Act One and Higgins’ towering study in Act Two. These changeovers begin to grate however, especially during one at the end of Act Three, which takes an age to set up for a scene that lasts for little over a minute.

It’s one of the few flaws in a solid production. The other is Charlie Murphy as Eliza. It’s a technically proficient, yet soulless, performance, which saw her pass as a flower girl and as a lady but never credibly as the one person. She played Eliza as a victim throughout and while that is certainly the case we never see the pragmatist, the survivor or the longing for a little kindness.

Since she is the key ingredient to a perfect Pygmalion she costs the production an emotional thread, which means it never involves us on a human level. Her rejection of Higgins lacked depth and the baying laughter that greeted his almost assault on her proved how little the audience had invested in her as a character, ensuring that we had taken Shaw’s ideas to our hearts but not his most popular creation.


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