Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan



Elocution, elocution, elocution!

Harveen Sandhu as Eliza Doolittle, with Jeremy Carver-James, in Pygmalion Photo by Emily Cooper With Shaw's creative director Peter Hinton at the helm, you know that you will see something unique and well-researched. And after his brilliant interpretations of decadent Cabaret and insolent Lady Windermere's Fan, this season he zeroes in on the inequity of modern day wealth, not just class, with a gritty contemporary rendering of Pygmalion. Hinton offers current views of class and even race amidst the gargantuan economic divide that exists between the 1% who own most of the world and the rest of us poor souls.

The story remains the same, an unlikely pairing of lower class Eliza, a flower girl with dark Asian skin, who dreams of moving up in the world and linguistics professor, Henry Higgins, a world expert on speech, who records her horrific accent and afterwards accepts a bet by his friend and fellow linguist, Colonel Pickering that he will transform Eliza into a duchess in a mere six months - "I shall make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe." Patrick McManus is Higgins, an often annoying academic amused by Harveen Sandhu's Eliza who screams at him and others like a wild parrot. McManus is no idealist, trying to make the world a better place. To indicate his non-conformity, he wears shorts instead of trousers and rides around on a bike, chronicling (with an iPad) the vagaries of British idiom. He chews gum crassly with his mouth wide open and inadvertently stumbles over folding, metaphoric chairs. He often sits reclined on a bean bag chair in his study amidst his hi-tech toys, lofty bookcases, fancy sound recorders and a video monitoring system available to the audience.

Ultimately, he succeeds in his sport but fails as a human being, when Sandhu outfitted in a gorgeous gown, tells him, "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated." Sandhu is a great choice by Hinton, reflecting first anger and rage then autonomy and an easy, confident manner.

Jeff Meadows as Colonel Pickering, Harveen Sandhu as Eliza Doolittle and Patrick McManus as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion Photo by David Cooper Jeff Meadows as Colonel Pickering is one step up from McManus in the courtesy rung, but not inclined to get too close to Eliza and the experiment which McManus views with the same zeal as stimulus-response psychologist B.F. Skinner - after Eliza summons the courage to visit his home after their first chance encounter, saying she wants to speak "more genteel."

McManus acts like a bully as he instructs his pupil in the fine art of elocution, the human voice employed as the instrument and essence of British class structure - which might remind one of the verbally challenged George W. Bush employing British PM Tony Blair as his sophisticated mouthpiece to sell a phony war to the world via an inept mass media. The things that can be done with voice!

The ultimate transformation is astonishing and Eliza's new persona - her etiquette, clothing, and vocalizations make her unrecognizable to her own father, Alfred, played superbly by Peter Krantz who undergoes a similar transformation, but is a realist who regrets his success, and she now appeals to gentlemen suitors like Freddy Eynsford Hill played convincingly by Wade Bogert-O'Brien.

As Bernard Shaw discovered himself, Pygmalion, his thematic attempt to be didactic and combative concerning class structure, is often diverted by the play's rich humour, but not so with Hinton's production that zeroes in on Shaw's key topic, not removing the humour, but lessening its sidetracking effect. Eliza has won the lottery. Now what?

Hinton helps makes the play modern by using a trendy f-word invective by Eliza in the drawing room of Mrs. Higgins (Donna Belleville), an ultramodern fashion designer, and it drew the biggest audience laugh. He also employs a clever 2011 BBC documentary which describes the "new" class system, projecting it upon the screen, and he is ably assisted in visual effects by Eo Sharp's terrific sets and Christina Poddubiuk's wonderful costumes. Hinton's fine track record at Shaw also seems to have helped with budgetary niceties such as an actual black London cab driven across the Festival's stage.

This play, another achievement by Peter Hinton, is well worth a view. It runs at the Festival Theatre to Oct. 24.

Director's Notes by Peter Hinton
When Pygmalion premiered in London in 1914, it was during an explosive time of class tension. The play questions whether society and power are the privilege of a select few or the right of many. Higgins himself describes his temperament as "Miltonic" and envisions his phonetic transformation of Eliza Doolittle from street girl to Duchess as a great act of social engineering. Lofty ideas for romantic comedy, but this is the audacity and genius of Shaw.

People love to say that we have no real class system anymore and that this play belongs to the world of pre-World War I, Edwardian England. However, the wealth gap is greater today than it was in 1914 and the unlikelihood of rising out of poverty is now 20 times greater than it was in Shaw's time. The situation in the UK for the poor is worse and more pressured than it has ever been.

The text was first published in 1916, and over the course of Shaw's lifetime he revised the play several times with additions and changes for new productions and publications, as well as for a film in 1938. What struck me as I looked at the variant texts was that each time Shaw revisited this play (unlike The Philanderer, for instance) he modernized it. His film adaptation of 1938 is set in 1938 and did not retain the original Edwardian setting.

In 2015, we live in an age where three-quarters of the Conservative cabinet in the UK are millionaires. Prime Minister David Cameron went to schools that now charge fees higher than the average annual wage and 85 people earn the same wealth as half the world's population. Never before has money been so polarized. The 21st century will be the most unequal in human history, and so I wondered how Shaw's comedy on class and gender, cultural appearances and realities, could speak to the great divide - the 1% that continue to own a disproportionate amount of the world's wealth and the precarious and dangerous worlds underneath.

We have used Shaw's original version from 1914 and only altered the text as it related to concordances of money values and places. Throughout rehearsal, our efforts were to translate the meanings of ideas, words and manners of an Edwardian play in contemporary terms and to treat a great text by Shaw, as is done with the very best of our classical writers, in modern dress.

The power of Shaw's wit and humanity provides a critical lens on our modern world of fashion, celebrity, tax shelters and public protest. And as for the phonetics - As David Cameron once said, of the key to social mobility: "elocution, elocution, elocution."

Photos by David and Emily Cooper

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