Any doubts that English folk are still hidebound by class consciousness are quickly dispelled by listening to an audience at Pygmalion. We love this play with a dim-witted passion, not realising our laughter and applause say more about us than Bernard Shaw’s text or the production. When I attended the flagship show of this summer’s Peter Hall Company season in Bath, we clapped not just at the end of scenes or on a character’s exit after a set-piece routine, but even on individual lines.
Eliza Doolittle, having been given cut-glass elocution and an elegant makeover by Professor Henry Higgins on a bet that he can pass her off in high society, is undergoing her first field test at his mother’s “at home”, chatting about her dubious family dramas without realising how egregious she sounds. Michelle Dockery as Eliza pitches it perfectly: her painted-china composure is complemented by an accent whose precision stops a millimetre short of implausibility. In response to an inquiry from one of the bewildered patricians, she enunciates with flawless hauteur, “Not bloody likely!”; applause. Ten seconds later, she exits without having said much else; applause all over again. But it is not simply that words and accent do not match; it is the baggage of assumptions we bring to the mismatch. Later, Shaw gets more Shavian as Higgins and Eliza debate social roles and independence, and the applause becomes more dutiful.
Dockery, in her first stage lead, fully justifies the confidence placed in her. Her “listening acting” opposite Higgins is wonderfully eloquent; she can make a point by not moving a muscle in her face. Tim Pigott-Smith’s Higgins is refreshingly jovial, but needs more bark to counterbalance his boyishness. He also commits too much to Higgins’ late realisation that he is in love with Eliza: sudden pauses, too-admiring remarks uttered with a wondering intonation and the like. Hall wants to take us as close as possible to a happy ending so the actual at-best-ambivalent close becomes that much more piquant.
Barry Stanton is cast slightly against type as Colonel Pickering, the less volcanic half of the double-act with Higgins. Tony Haygarth is temperamentally a shoo-in as Eliza’s dustman-philosopher father, although he seems at times to be going for a land speed record on his lines. Higgins’ mother is played by Barbara Jefford, who by now deserves a “Living National Treasure” title. Of the younger actors, Edward Bennett is nice-but-dim as Freddy Eynsford Hill and Cressida Trew as his sister Clara signals her own interest in the oblivious Higgins. Hall uses “Shaw’s original concise text” – “Shaw” and “concise”, two words one never expected to see in the same sentence.
In the Theatre Royal’s young people’s studio, The Egg, Hall’s 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is revived by director Rachel O’Riordan in a committed ensemble production with a “poor theatre” look. This barnyard parable of the evils of Stalinism, as Napoleon the pig gradually erodes the socialist hopes of the animals who have taken over the farm for themselves, threatens repeatedly in the first half to be too much play-of-ideas and not enough drama. When events speed up, they also become gorier, with the stage flooded with blood during a series of show trials. My 10-year-old companion, who had breezed through the book in an afternoon, was a little daunted by both the dialectic and the menace. I suspect this revival may be mis-pitched; Animal Farm is only superficially like a children’s story – Halas & Batchelor’s 1954 screen version was, after all, the first animated film ever to be given an X certificate in Britain.
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