At the Old Vic
Of all the mistakes in this production of Pygmalion at the Old Vic, the shouting was the worst. They shouted far too much. The power of this play comes from the contrast between a polite, restrained manner and the sharper meanings being expressed. Every time this production detected that some tension was building in the dialogue they decided to blow it up and let it out. For God’s sake, Shaw is didactic enough. If you start yelling his homilies the whole thing becomes very dull indeed. Pygmalion is a wonderful play, one of Shaw’s best, but it’s hardly subtle. It doesn’t need playing like a soap opera.
Technically, the production is messy. They cut many of Shaw’s lines but added several of their own ensemble scenes, which contribute little to the story or atmosphere and take up time that could have been spent elsewhere. The movements were erratic to the point of distraction. Eliza spent half the time running in circles. Higgins was constantly squirming. Few of the accents were right. Mr. Doolittle swallowed many of his lines. Eliza wasn’t well-spoken enough. Higgins had a false, strangulated voice that suggests little care was taken to try and speak as he would have spoken. The decisions not to put Higgins in evening clothes at the ball, to have him half-gleeful about his possible failure, and to be a volatile mix of simpering and abruptly arrogant at the same tea party, were all part of a larger pattern of preferring the immediate sensation to a coherent whole. The staging and costumes were half (sort-of) period, half not. The one excellent performance was from Sylvestra Le Touzel.
And the ending… Higgins isn’t supposed to give a small empty laugh at the end. He really is laughing at the idea of Eliza marrying Freddie. And no, Eliza doesn’t start a phonetic school. It’s silly to think she could with only six months’ training. Shaw is explicit about that. Yes, it would be more comfortable for our tastes. It’s not very modern for Eliza’s triumph to be a marriage, but that was the reality. You don’t become a rival to Henry Higgins after going to one Embassy ball.
The play is about the way Higgins turns Eliza into a lady for his own sake, about the need to speak a certain way because of the pressure of the class system. This new ending repeats that trick, turning Eliza into the lady we want her to be because of the pressure of our own political beliefs. Of course, we have good beliefs! But it was pretty foolish that they couldn’t see that by jamming a modern ending on, the production had become a sort of pygmalion too.
Shaw’s 1938 film is excellent. It won an Oscar. Watch that rather than go to the Old Vic.