Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pygmalion at the Alley

Tonight I got to attend the Alley Theatre's production of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. I'd read the play before, once in high school and once when studying for my comps, and I have practically memorized the film version of My Fair Lady, but I'd never before seen the play performed. I was little nervous since I am such a big fan of the film that I wouldn't be able to avoid constant comparisons between my memories of it and what I was watching on the stage. I also am not the biggest fan of the Alley troupe's usual leading lady Elizabeth Bunch - I've previously seen her in The Thirty-Nine Steps where she was hilarious, and in Peter Pan where her Wendy left something to be desired (in her defense, it's not easy to be a woman playing a  little girl pretending to be a woman, and Barrie wrote a lot of strange lines).

But overall, I have to say that tonight's performance was delightful. The first scene took a bit to get warmed up - the British accents were a little shaky, and I was haunted by shades of the incomparable Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. But by scene two the actors hit their stride, and the brilliant hilarity of Shaw's wonderful exploration of language and the battle of the sexes took over. I surprised myself by enjoying Bunch's loud-mouthed Eliza, particularly during her infamous tale of the aunt who was "done in" and also during her final, furious battle with Higgins. This is the scene that receives shortest shrift in the movie, probably because it doesn't play to the film's understated but decidedly happy ending where Eliza returns to Wimpole street (which she does not do in Shaw's original: the ending is left ambiguous, although Shaw hoped audiences would reach a different conclusion than the one almost everybody does). But it is the heart of Shaw's play, where his belief about the right of every person, regardless of class or gender, to own their own soul really comes to the forefront, and Bunch and leading man Todd Waite played it fully in all its bitter battle glory.

The real star of the production in my opinion, though, was Elizabeth Shepherd as Henry Higgins's long-suffering mother. She was the perfect late Victorian mother, who both loves and can't abide her ingenious and terribly improper son. Her lines were delivered with just the right amount of dry wit and no nonsense-attitude that, I think, make her one of Shaw's most Wildean and lovable characters.

Finally, anyone encountering Pygmalion for the first time should follow up the production with a visit to Shaw's text where they'll find what you don't see in the Hepburn/Harrison film or on the stage - a multiple page author note where Shaw passionately explains why Eliza and Higgins will NOT end up together, why it would be appalling if they did so, and why society in general is completely wrong about women (this from a man whose own relationships with women were often troubled). It's fascinating example of an author utterly exasperated with his public for reaching the wrong conclusion - an authorial attempt to reclaim a text that's been released for public consumption. But the truth is, an author can't control the way readers will interpret (in this case) his work, particular when the ending is left ambiguous. Once the play is performed, it is no longer up to Shaw whether or not Eliza and Higgins will get together. It's up to the audience.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I've never read or seen Shaw's play, but what you say about the ending really clears up my long-standing confusion about the end of the movie. I could never understand why Eliza would go back to him since his attitude toward her is still so ridiculous. Thanks for the review, it sounds like a lovely production of a play I really need to read!