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Pygmalion: Shaw’s classism study deftly dropped into modern times

A scene from Pygmalion.

Emily Cooper

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Pygmalion
Written by
George Bernard Shaw
Directed by
Peter Hinton
Actors
Patrick McManus, Harveen Sandhu
Venue
Shaw Festival
City
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Year
2015
Runs Until
Friday, October 23, 2015

Pygmalion, in its equal parts intelligent and spectacular modern-dress production at the Shaw Festival by director Peter Hinton, is a real conversation starter. To be enjoyed fully, at a three-and-a-half star level, it must be followed by vigorous, Shavian debate with a friend over a bottle from one of the nearby wineries. Here are questions to guide yours.

First glass: Does George Bernard Shaw's play fit in 2015 London?

Hinton's production begins with Henry Higgins (Patrick McManus) listening in on diverse accents in Covent Garden – armed with an iPad instead of a notebook. The phonetician eavesdrops on Eliza Doolittle (Harveen Sandhu), still a flower girl, albeit now peddling amid street vendors selling knock-off Beckham football jerseys; Colonel Pickering (Jeff Meadows), a fellow linguist with a military background, who now has spent time in Afghanistan rather than India; and the poor, but upper-class Eynsford Hill family, including the young, dashing Freddy (Wade Bogert-O'Brien, making a strong impression with scant stage time).

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As Hinton explains in a director's note, he has altered Shaw's script only as it relates to "concordances of money values and places." (He also changes an expletive or two, to solid effect.) Shaw made similar alterations to Pygmalion after its 1914 premiere for prominent productions, new publications and for the 1938 movie; he always intended for this story to live in the present.

But Hinton is not unaware that British society has changed drastically since the Second World War – and, during a scene change, he projects an excerpt from a 2011 BBC documentary about Britain's seven "new" classes that take into account cultural, social and economic capital.

This does help clarify Doolittle's actual aspirations when she shows up at Higgins' house looking to shed her accent versus the goals that Higgins and Pickering have in their bet to pass a flower girl off as a duchess. Eliza doesn't want to become royalty – in the BBC's jargon, she wishes to move up from the "precariat" to the "emergent service sector," or sell flowers in a shop rather than on the street.

Unfortunately, Eliza is more of a caricature than character in Shaw's early scenes. Sandhu follows in a long line of Doolittles who can't rise above the writing, excellent after the "transformation," but mildly embarrassing earlier on, forced to croon condescending lines such as, "Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!"

By contrast, Higgins is an enduring creation and seems entirely of today in McManus's wonderfully irritating performance – a technology-obsessed, creative-class type who smugly cycles everywhere. (He wears shorts in social situations where they are not typically worn – not because he is oblivious to etiquette, but because he thinks himself above it all.)

"The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners, but having the same manner for all human souls," he says in one of the play's great debates. But Eliza better understands what we now call "privilege."

"The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated," she says.

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It's Higgins's tragedy that he doesn't see that Eliza is right; though, in McManus's complex, loveable/hateable performance, Higgins constantly misses what's in front of him, tripping over chairs and benches and eventually his own heart.

Second glass: Is Hinton's production colour-blind or colour-conscious?

Shaw's play examines class, not race – and that's makes for a significant discordance when the play is moved to modern, multicultural London.

In the Shaw Festival's production, diversity is fully visible in the opening scene. And, afterwards, Sandhu's brown skin stands out amid leads otherwise all white-skinned – including Peter Krantz playing her father, Mr. Doolittle, who hilariously becomes the subject of a exploitative reality-TV show. (There's also Donna Belleville as a Vivienne Westwood-inspired version of Higgins's mother, a designer whose class-crossing creations are on parade throughout the show.)

The issue, as an audience member, is whether we are to take note of Sandhu's difference and let it affect our impression of the story or not.

For the most part, Hinton's production – gorgeously, extravagently designed by Eo Sharp and Christina Poddubiuk complete with an actual black London cab – is Higginsian in approach. It treats everyone in the same manner regardless of race.

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But, as Eliza gains her intellectual emancipation from Higgins at the end, she is shown reading and underlining passages in NW by the mixed-race British author Zadie Smith – a novel that, notably, never describes the race of any of its characters except those that are white.

Hinton has also altered a line in the script so that Eliza is from Harlesden, a setting in NW, rather than Lisson Grove. And is there a trace of East Indian in her accent?

Just as the director has partially updated the script, he's only partially engaged with race. The friction between the production and the play is enjoyable at times – and itchy at others. Could, should Hinton have gone further?

Post script: If you do drink after Pygmalion, please don't drive.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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