Shaw's classic gets an electrifying jump-start
Pygmalion, Warwick Arts Centre, until Friday, March 3
Headlong, Nuffield Southampton Theatres, and West Yorkshire Playhouse, have jump-started a 100-year-old script back to life with an electrifying and electronic version of this well-known play.
Darker and more bitter than the musical version, director Sam Pritchard uses a battery of loops, samples, reverb and live mixing with a nod to electronic dance music to update speech therapy techniques for a contemporary audience.
The universally strong cast give life to the Edwardian text which has much to say in a Trump world about gender and class. The visual is not neglected either, with a Pandora’s box set which opens to reveal by turns a sound lab, a terrarium-like glass living room and Higgins’ moment of triumph distanced through a letterbox view.
With clever use of projection, hand-held camera and captions, the audience is propelled initially into a world of lip-sync where gender, ethnicity, age and class are defied with the players delivering Shaw’s original words in contemporary dress and style. Before we have taken our seats we are reading a projected quote to a soundscape of voices warming up.
Eliza Doolittle’s vocal transformation is accompanied by the accoutrements of the mix desk but Higgins’ misogynistic encouragement and her father’s casual abandonment are shocking to those who expected My Fair Lady, or the bolt-on happier endings that Shaw despised.
Ian Burfield’s Alfred Doolittle gives a strong Fabian-inspired monologue to explain his actions and several two-handers between Alex Beckett’s Higgins and Natalie Gavin’s excellent Eliza have real emotional bite. Liza Sadovy’s blue stocking Mrs Higgins presages the rise of women’s suffrage showing solidarity with Eliza’s plight, and has some of the funniest lines in the drawing room scenes.
The production is on a national tour and I would urge anyone with a free evening this week to immerse themselves in this play and give it a sound check.