George Bernard Shaw
The Peter Hall Company
Theatre Royal, Bath
Until the current revival of Saint Joan at the National Theatre, it seemed Sir Peter Hall was a voice in the wilderness, the sole champion of 'Britain's greatest dramatist' after Shakespeare, according to critic Michael Billington.
Every year for the last three years, Hall has dusted off one his plays and made as strong a case as can be made for work now beloved of folk in Bath, Malvern and the deepest shires only, as A N Wilson tartly observed. Mind you I have not yet forgiven Hall for including in his otherwise splendid staging of Man and Superman three years ago, the interminably long and excruciatingly dull 'Don Juan in Hell' sequence with its prolix cod-Nietzschean philosophical ramblings. As I glumly observed at the time: "Empires rose and fell. Hope died".
Those - and that means most, if not all, of us - familiar with Pygmalion through My Fair Lady only, stand advised that the original is darker and more dystopian than the rosy tinted world of Lerner and Loewe. Where, in the musical, Henry Higgins is irascible but redeemable; here he is thoroughly dislikeable, casually cruel in the way that those to the manor born often are. Eliza and he do not get married and live happily after and there are no songs.
That suits me fine and the audience at Bath didn't seem to feel any loss either. But howsoever Shaw often displays a considerable "talent to amuse", as Coward had it, I remain unconvinced of the claims to greatness made on his behalf by the likes of Billington. But more of that later. Perhaps the best scene in the play, and certainly the funniest, occurs when Eliza is taken to a genteel gathering hosted by Higgins' mother. She now speaks 'properly' and has scrubbed up wonderfully well; but will she be seen through? In order to give her a chance, Higgins has restricted her to two conversation topics only: the weather and polite chit chat about people's general health.
Of course Eliza goes 'off message' with 'hilarious results', stunning those present with her tales of gin guzzling and suspected homicide, all delivered in faultless Received Pronunciation. Eliza departs, politely dismissing an offer of an escort with the immortal line, "Walk? Not bloody likely", one excised from the musical. There is also a bravura turn by Tony Haygarth as her incorrigible father and fine support from Barry Stanton as Colonel Pickering. The casting in fact is strong throughout. Barbara Jefford, best known for her domineering Shakespearean matrons, coasts imperiously as Alfred's long- suffering mother, Tim Piggot-Smith deftly captures Higgins' obliviousness to the offence he causes, an overgrown schoolboy for all his brilliance, blithely playing 'pocket billiards' to the discomfiture of the company present at Eliza's 'coming out'.
Of course getting Eliza right is key to the success of any production and Michelle Dockery deftly negotiates the transition from squawking flower girl to sophisticate. But, as the programme notes, what Higgins is about is not just changing phonetics but remoulding personality itself, something which from time immemorial is seen as blasphemous and likely to bring destruction down.
And this is the serious issue at the heart of the play; Higgins in his arrogance cannot credit that anyone in Eliza's 'station' can have any feelings worth the name. The pertinence of this as a real issue at the time has been highlighted, again, by the publication of a new book about the Bloosmbury set and their servants. This lays bare Virginia Woolf's loathing of her housekeeper whom she regarded as sub-human, a trait she shared with all her class in Woolf's view and those of her contemporaries. Think this is an exaggeration? Check out John Carey's Intellectual and the Masses. In fact the only writer of any note who didn't share this view as far as John Carey could see, apart from Shaw, was Arthur Conan Doyle.
But despite this, the writing of Shaw does not speak to me in the way that Ibsen does. Here, the author's notorious verbosity, pace Man and Superman, is not the issue; it's just that the play seems fatally beached in time and despite the best efforts of Hall and his fine ensemble, there it lies. Still, there is fun to be had; the set by Simon Higlett and costumes of Christopher Woods are handsome and some overacting from Una Stubbs and the tendency of Cressida Trew to vocal harshness are no real obstacle to an enjoyable evening.
Reviewer: Pete Wood