The lights come up and a sparse stage is revealed. No props. No set. No people. A rectangular opening at the back of the stage appears, rain is falling heavily and a woman stands in it, soaking and shoeless. She has come to find Professor Henry Higgins to ask him to give her speech lessons. To help her “become a lady” so that she can “make her own life”. Thus is the opening to The Sydney Theatre Company’s current revamping of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”
Based on Ovid’s” The Story of Pygmalion and the Statue” from Metamorphosis, Pygmalion explores the relationship between Professor Higgins (Marco Chiappi) and his flower-girl and cockney accented Eliza Doolittle (Andrea Demetriades), as he attempts to transform her into a “duchess” so as to win a bet made between himself and Colonel Pickering (played by Kim Gyngell). He is outdone by Eliza who grows into a woman who can think and argue for herself.
Peter Evans’ interpretation brings the themes of identity, nature vs nurture, social convention and the battle of the sexes into the modern era with a very contemporary visual interpretation (aided by the designs of Robert Cousins and Mel Page) that helps to highlight how these ideas have changed or, for lack of a better word, metamorphosised over time. With most of us fraternising in an online world and struggling with insecurtities the world of celebrity and the magazine image can bring, this issue of identity and the social standing it brings, is still a relevant one.
For me, the theme of identity was the one I connected with most. It was wonderful seeing Eliza blossom and to be able to stand up to Higgins at the end of the play and tell him what she thinks. That is something that I feel has certainly equalled out over the years. This battle between the sexes. At the same time, whilst women have moved forward in leaps and bounds, I do feel there is still this underlying belief that we are second rate to men and that chauvinism is certainly highlighted by Higgins.
This plays out most clearly in the final scene between Higgins and Eliza in Act 5. Demetriades is subtle as Eliza and Chiappi captures much of Higgin’s arrogance in his swift, snobbish line delivery. I’m not sure that the tension between Eliza and Higgin’s is fully realised and the ending is very ambiguous. However, David Wood’s is hillarious as Eliza’s father, really highlighting the social difference between the characters in the latter half of the play. I loved Wendy Hughes as Higgins’s mother and Deborah Kennedy as Mrs Pearce. They are further examples of the strength of feminism and the subtlety with which we can have power over men.
This is a play that is 100 years old this year and proves that theatre can transcend time and still be as relevant today as it ever was.