Pygmalion at New Theatre
“Why did you take my independence from me?”
It is the turn of the 20th century and in a newly-industrialised England, class barriers are breaking down. Eliza Doolittle – an aspirational young flower girl with no money and unintelligible speech – sees a chance to escape the destiny of her birth. Language lessons from the wealthy, bullying, funny, linguistics professor Henry Higgins seem like just the ticket. But a ticket to what?
This production of Shaw’s most popular play will embrace the aesthetic of Steampunk to explore subjects of class division and social mobility in a world where people’s worth is judged not by who they are but by the way they speak. Though reflecting the shuttered and stifling nature of Edwardian society, there are profound parallels to our own.
Carly spoke to Director Deborah Mulhall about this Steampunk-inspired iteration and how a story that many people feel is outdated can translate to a 2019 audience. Read the full interview below:
I’d like to start with an obvious question and that is about relevance – Pygmalion has certainly met its fair share of criticism before for being misogynistic and for actively promoting the undervaluing of women and in the 2019 landscape, in a time when we live post movements like #metoo but also like Equal Pay for Equal Work, why do you think that this story is still relevant and what do you feel it has to say about the female condition today?
Perspective is everything, isn’t it? I never saw this story as one undervaluing women, but actively encouraging women to get an education, to not settle for whatever! This is a story about a very brave, aspirational girl who sees an opportunity to better her life, to educate herself out of a life of drudgery and poverty and takes the chance. In her journey she discovers – as we all do – that everything costs. Every dream we reach for has to be paid for in some way or another. For Eliza, it is her (our?) precious independence. However, in the end she reclaims her independence and herself through some tough decisions. A hundred years on, women are still learning this lesson. As for Henry Higgins – I have never seen him as a misogynist but as a misanthrope. Despite his bullying and childish self-centredness, audiences always forgive him. And you have to ask why. I think it is because he is truly authentic in a world of pretence. He has a strong ethical code which he applies equally to all human beings. His passion is for language: its music; as a tool for social advancement, as a suitable subject for scientific inquiry, and as a medium for artistic expression. And … unfortunately he is right about so many things such as treating all humanity the same. That is annoying, isn’t it? When a “rude” person is right.
George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is a story that most readers will be familiar with, if not as Pygmalion itself, then as My Fair Lady. What do you believe it is about this story that has made it one that has attracted audiences for generations and globally? What is the appeal of Eliza Doolittle and what do you think she reflects about both the society of which she is a product and the audiences whom have watched this character across plays, musicals, film, etc?
It is the ultimate aspirational story really. My Fair Lady “disneyfied” Pygmalion for a general viewing audience. The writers were, for the most part, faithful to the language of the play if not to the dark underbelly of it. Our rehearsal motto has been “More Dickens than Disney”. The musical changed the ending which enraged GB Shaw at the time. It was never meant to be a romance. Higgins is Shaw’s mouthpiece and Shaw was a socialist who founded the Fabian Society. Economically, he firmly believed that poverty and education (or lack of it) were linked. By personalizing the theory in Pygmalion, he created a story that fascinates because it plays out what we all suspect: that privilege is a ruse conferred by money and not ability. Privilege is an accident of birth. Look at all the spin-offs: Educating Rita; Pretty Woman; She’s All That; Trading Places … the list goes on. The play encourages everyone to challenge the status quo. But is also clear that the challenge won’t be easy.
This production is taking on a steampunk aesthetic. Can you tell us more about this decision – how did it come to be and why do you feel it is an important addition to the remaking of this classic?
In my mind, I fiddle with a play for a long time, looking for a “way-in”. What vision helps me tell the story as I see it? My daughter took me to a Steampunk festival and in talking to people I found that Steampunk begins with the question - ”What if …?” and continues with ”How would …?”and its symbol is the cog. A symbol of movement. What if a girl wanted to move beyond the confines of the world she was born into? How would she move out of those confines? Steampunk also utilises the concept of the toolbelt; you wear the accoutrements of your employment. When Higgins orders that Eliza is stripped of everything she stands in, he strips her of her ability to earn a living; he takes away her independence. This was the metaphor I was looking for.
George Bernard Shaw is arguably one of the best writers of modern times – what excites you about working with one of his texts? Why was this something that you definitely wanted to direct? Has it been on your list for some time?
Some say Shaw is second only to Shakespeare, who is my favourite. The French would argue, of course, it is Moliere. And yes, it has been on my list for some time. Such memorable characters and such finely honed language and the issues are universal. The last interchange between Higgins and Eliza is such exemplary writing. There is not a wasted word in the whole script: everything that happens is set up; even what seems to be a simple throw away line bears fruit later in the play. What director could resist almost perfect writing?
What is something that you hope audiences walk away from this new production considering?
“plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”… but there is hope. With enough Elizas, we have hope.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
1977 Rock’s Players Macbeth. The vision shaped my understanding of what theatre should be and do.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Scotland. The highlands.
Dream show to direct?
A Winter’s Tale
Plays or musicals?
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Restoring and repurposing
What’s next for you after this show?
Waiting for the universe to show me.
Pygmalion opens at the New Theatre on April 23 2019. You can get your tickets here.