Monday, August 8, 2011

Higgins and Eliza: Pygmalion & My Fair Lady

The West End revival (at the Garrick Theatre) of Shaw’s Pygmalion appears to be a vanity project for a miscast Rupert Everett. Everett is famous for velvet-gloved high-style comedy; his way of tossing off a line can turn the romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) or the Michael Hoffman film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) into high comedy. Shaw, of course, wrote high comedies, and it’s easy to imagine Everett in some of them. (A decade ago he would have made a superb Jack Tanner in Man and Superman, perhaps opposite Helena Bonham Carter as Ann.) But the role of the misanthropic phonetician and voice teacher Henry Higgins doesn’t suit him. He doesn’t know what to do with Higgins’s unmannerly explosions  his big scenes flatline. And the role provides no outlet for his understated sexiness; it wastes him and it’s wasted on him.

His Eliza Doolittle, Kara Tointon, isn’t right either. Eliza is generally played by an actress of natural elegance – Wendy Hiller in the 1938 movie (playing opposite Leslie Howard), Audrey Hepburn in the screen version of My Fair Lady – who slums merrily for the first three acts and then comes into her own after the Embassy Ball. At this point Higgins has succeeded so brilliantly into turning the Cockney flower girl into a princess that at the end she’s truly in limbo, having been irrevocably educated past her origins. Tointon doesn’t have the aristocratic grace to be convincing as a transformed Eliza in the second half, but she’s too actressy to be plausible as the Covent Garden guttersnipe. She’s competent but you can feel her straining for her effects. She’s at her best in the third act (just before intermission) when Higgins brings her along to his mother’s for tea to try her out on the guests who wander into her salon, including the callow Freddy Eynsford-Hill (played by another triple-decker name, Peter Sandys-Clarke), who falls for her. (Diana Rigg strolls through the part of Mrs. Higgins like a gracious guest star on a wobbly TV variety hour.) The joke in this scene is that at this juncture in her education, Eliza has learned both the dialect and the manners of an upper-crust young woman phonetically, so the Eliza we saw in the first and second acts keeps rattling around inside the varnished shell like broken pieces of pottery. Tointon’s handling of the scene is a comic routine but a clever and entertaining one.

Diana Rigg
The production was both directed and designed by Philip Prowse, and the way he stages it you can see he’s more concerned with showing off the prettiness of his set, which has enormous French-door panels that open out or close to reveal each new environment. I can’t remember the last time I saw so much symmetrical staging or so much pictorial stillness in a play. Downstage left and right, facing off, is a matching pair of levels that the actors plop down on in every scene except the first (outside Covent Garden, where both Higgins and Freddy come across Eliza selling flowers in the street). In the final scene between Higgins and Eliza, they sit facing each other and don’t move at all until the end, so it looks like they’re opponents in a debate. The scene has no shape; Eliza finally gets up and confronts Higgins, but the movement isn’t linked to a shift in the interaction of the two characters  you get the sense that Prowse suddenly realized it was time to change the stage picture. An undergraduate directing student could improve on the staging of any scene in the play. Prowse adds a lonely bit of invention at the end, extrapolating from Higgins’s curtain line, “Marry Freddy  ha!” to a wedding scene between Eliza and her puppy-dog suitor Freddy, that presumably transpires in Higgins’s imagination. At the finish, she steps downstage, removes a single bloom from her bouquet, and bestows it on Higgins. We make the connection to the opening Covent Garden scene, but it doesn’t mean anything. This must be Prowse’s idea of a concept.

Rupert Everett & Kara Tointon

Pygmalion is a charming comedy, and despite the borderline ineptitude of the production it was pleasant to be reminded of the way Shaw uses the conventions of high comedy against themselves to comment wittily on class. In a conventional high comedy, the sacrosanct nature of manners underlines the idea that class boundaries are uncrossable, but in this play an ingenious phonetics teacher wins a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering (Peter Eyre) by making a working-class girl look and sound so much like a lady that no one can tell the difference. Eliza is the perfect replica that throws the authenticity of the original in doubt  Shaw uses her to point up the revolutionary notion that class is merely a social construct, but one that society can’t do without. (James Barrie makes the same comment in The Admirable Crichton, which is currently in production at Canada’s Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.) Mrs. Pearce (Roberta Taylor), Higgins’s exasperated housekeeper, lectures him on his swearing and bad table manners, which he gets away with because no one except his mother and his housekeeper would ever think to challenge a gentleman’s deportment. She explains that his behavior doesn’t offend her because she’s used to it, but if Eliza is going to move into his flat for this great social experiment of his, then it’s his responsibility to provide a better role model. (Shaw may have borrowed this idea of the lower classes demanding that their betters set a high bar from Strindberg’s Miss Julie, in which the housekeeper, Kristine, is furious at Miss Julie for sleeping with the valet Jean, not so much because he’s engaged to her as because an aristocratic lady shouldn’t act like a slut.) Pickering’s role in the play is to provide a foil for Higgins: he’s the gentle aristocrat whose manners are so good that it never occurs to him to treat Eliza as anything other than a lady from the moment she walks into Higgins’s library and asks him for elocution lessons. And her father, the ingenious scoundrel Alfred Doolittle, is one of Shaw’s self-conscious proletarian characters, a natural social philosopher whose point of view Higgins finds so irresistible that, as a passing amusement, he passes him off as Britain’s most original moral thinker and gets him a lectureship and an inheritance from a philanthropist. Doolittle is a delicious role, and Michael Feast gives the best performance of the evening in it. Aside from him, though, you’d get just as much from sitting at home and reading the play as from this production. I’d say more. 

Benedict Campbell & Deborah Hay in My Fair Lady

To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary season, the Shaw Festival has mounted an extremely enjoyable production (their first ever) of My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe’s beloved musical version of Pygmalion. Lerner’s book stays remarkably faithful to Shaw’s text, though he cunningly replaces the tea party at Mrs. Higgins’s  the first test of Henry’s training of Eliza  with an outing at the Ascot racetrack (where Eliza, by contrast with the deadpan aristocrats, really gets into the race and famously exhorts the horse she’s bet on to “move yer bloomin’ arse”)  and places the Embassy Ball on stage so that we can see Eliza’s triumph for ourselves. And the ending is softened: in his final song Higgins admits he’s “grown accustomed to her face” and after he finishes Eliza quietly reappears in his study, confirming the not-quite-romantic pairing of the two protagonists. Since Lerner didn’t invent that ending  Shaw did, in his screenplay for the 1938 film version  no one has to worry that the musical has somehow bowdlerized the original. If anything, the musical improves on Shaw’s comedy of manners  it’s more satisfying, and it has all of those glorious songs.

Deborah Hay

The Shaw’s My Fair Lady, directed by Molly Smith, makes no casting errors. Benedict Campbell, the festival’s star attraction, sinks his teeth into Higgins’s juicy misanthropic tirades without taking them too seriously; he has a semi-submerged tenderness that allows us to hold out hope that, however short-sighted or self-involved Henry’s behavior may be, he’ll eventually realize that his investment in Eliza is personal as well as professional. Campbell’s only flaw is that he doesn’t do enough with his first-act solos (“Why Can’t the English?” and the self-defining rant “An Ordinary Man”), which may be the consequence of his singing straight through them. He has a very pleasant light baritone, but Higgins’s numbers were written for Rex Harrison, who didn’t, to talk over most of the music, and they’re somehow less buoyant when they’re sung 
 the lyrics sound as if they’d been pinned to the notes. Deborah Hay is the most enchanting Eliza I’ve ever seen. Unlike Audrey Hepburn or (from the sound of the original cast album) Julie Andrews, Hay’s Eliza isn’t a high-society creature playing at being a Cockney flower girl; the heart of her performance is the pre-Embassy Eliza, and she’s both terribly funny, in an Andrea Martin sort of way, and unexpectedly touching  especially when she sings the longing lyrics of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” in the opening scene and when, returning to Covent Garden with Freddy in the second act, she asks to warm her hands at the buskers’ fire and realizes sadly that her old companions don’t recognize her. Hay gets Eliza’s girlish excitement at the adventure laid out before her: when she tells Higgins that she came to his house in a taxi, she whispers the word like a charm. In the Ascot scene, she weighs her words with tremendous care as if she were trying to balance an expensive plate on her head, and each phrase sounds as if it had been wrapped in cotton balls. The only moment when she comes across as ordinary is during “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which she sings with a Jeanette MacDonaldish operetta timber.

Director Molly Smith
As Doolittle, the winning music-hall role played on Broadway and in the movies by the great Stanley Holloway, Neil Barclay is ebullient and uproarious. His voice sounds like it comes from the sub-basement  or perhaps as if alcoholic spirits had burned a cozy hole in the bottom  and the lightness of his tread in his two numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” belies his girth. Freddy has generally been dismissed as a thankless part with nothing going for it except the score’s biggest hit, “On the Street Where You Live”; in his autobiography Lerner admits that he added the verse during the out-of-town tryout as a way of reminding the audience who the character was, since he’d made so little impression during the Ascot scene that they were confused when he came out at the end of act one to serenade Eliza. But in the Shaw production Mark Uhre is so charmingly irrepressible as Freddy that we wait for him to return in act two with the reprise. Patrick Galligan as Pickering and Sharry Flett as Mrs. Higgins bring class and wit to their roles, though their talents are wasted in them  and Flett is really too young to play Mrs. Higgins. (She and Campbell seem to be roughly the same age.)
The shortcomings of the production are in the staging and the design. Ken MacDonald’s set, a series of dome-like metal frames, doesn’t fill the stage (a black traveler fills in the blank spaces) and the Embassy Ball set feels like an afterthought; Eliza should have a fairy-tale princess entrance rather than walking down a few steps. Presumably to cut down on scene shifts, there’s precious little furniture on the stage in some scenes, so Higgins, with nowhere to sit during the Ascot repartee between Eliza and the aristocrats, is stuck over on stage right, looking like a worried coach on the sidelines. There are a few puzzling small directorial choices, like having Higgins’s housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Patty Jamieson) sit comfortably in his study as if she were his confidant and give him a good-luck hug as he heads out to the ball with Eliza and Pickering. But they’re not as baffling as MacDonald’s motif of birds and birdcages: as well as Eliza’s birdcage, which she sends for after going to live in Higgins’s home, there’s another, larger one in his study; all the domes look like cages; projections of flying birds fill the sky at one point in the second act; and in Mrs. Higgins’s parlor, when we return to it in the penultimate scene, more wire cages hang ominously above the stage. Even if Eliza were a bird in a cage who gets released in act two like those flying warblers, this motif would still be woefully overstated. But she’s not; I’m not sure where in the script MacDonald could have got that idea. (Hay doesn’t play her that way, thank heaven.) Judith Bowden’s costumes for the women are abominations, especially the Ascot outfits, which look like something out of a Carmen Miranda musical; the only time Deborah Hay is allowed to look beautiful is in the simple, shimmering white gown she wears at the ball. And it’s puzzling to see Higgins show up at the social event of the season wearing a smoking jacket. The only designer who does consistently good work is Jock Munro, whose lighting is especially lovely during the Covent Garden scenes.

Benedict Campbell

It’s a bad idea to omit the famous overture, which always builds up happy expectation in an audience (Loewe was great at writing overtures) and shapes the opening moments of the musical. Without it, the scene of Covent Garden in the rain feels as if it had been plopped down unceremoniously, since Smith hasn’t come up with a substitute. On the other hand, Paul Sportelli’s musical direction is first-rate: the ensemble sounds terrific from start to finish, and never more so than in the group numbers  “Loverly,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Get Me to the Church on Time.” (The last two are also the high points of Daniel Pelzig’s choreography.) The harmonies are sweet and the choruses are robust  and that’s the lining of any successful musical.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes forThe Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment