Hugh O'Conor, Charlie Murphy and Christiane O'Mahony in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Pygmalion' by George Bernard Shaw. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Hugh O'Conor, Charlie Murphy and Christiane O'Mahony in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Pygmalion' by George Bernard Shaw. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Charlie Murphy and Fiona Bell in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Pygmalion' by George Bernard Shaw. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Charlie Murphy and Fiona Bell in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Pygmalion' by George Bernard Shaw. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Shaw’s theatre may have preceded television shows like 'Britain’s Got Talent' and 'The X Factor', yet in Pygmalion (1912) the playwright anticipates the pleasures and dangers of harnessing the dreams of a working class girl and attempting to turn her into a star. Modest by today’s ambitions, Eliza Doolittle’s (Murphy) wish is to be a lady with a flower shop, and so Professor of Phonetics Henry Higgins (Cooper) and linguist Colonel Pickering (Dunning) admit her to their version of boot camp, where she is scrubbed, clothed, and subjected to intensive lessons in diction. For Higgins and Pickering, it’s an irresistible experiment; for Eliza, it’s a lifeline.

In the Abbey’s first production of the play, Annabelle’s Comyn’s direction doesn’t underscore any contemporary resonances with fantasies of gender and class reinvention. Rather, it assumes the thematic self-evidence in a faithful, period production. The opening scene strikes a deeply atmospheric note when the sound of rain cracking on the ground sends a school of Londoners to shelter under the pillars of a church. In Mick Hughes’ design, crisscrossing lights target the frazzled faces of strangers caught in the showers, many of whom will unwittingly meet again later on.

While there’s a bit of awkward standing around from the support cast here – some pretending to talk to each other too much, others standing stock-still – it’s flower girl Eliza’s charged meeting with the Professor that defines the scene. When the perfectly patronizing Higgins boasts to Pickering that he could sculpt a bedraggled flower girl like Eliza into a Duchess merely by teaching her to speak well – Kate Middleton might spring to mind here - the girl’s interest is pricked. Brilliantly played by Murphy, with ferocious intent she compels the arrogant teacher to take her on.

The scrim drops between acts one and two to allow for Paul O’Mahony’s meticulously detailed study to settle. Meanwhile, Philip Stewart’s abstract swirling visuals appear to respond to Shaw’s suggestion that difficult scenes might be best suited to cinematic representation. The slightly jarring juxtaposition keeps us busy while the set is changed, and a play of shadows reveals the moving of furniture.

Comyn’s version is rich on brutality and comedy and manages to avoid sentimentality. Although Shaw may have somewhat facetiously referred to his play as ‘A Romance in Five Acts,’ there is little love found or lost between Eliza and Higgins here. Cooper’s embodiment is too self-involved for that, and on the only occasion he really loses control with Eliza, he locks her down with his legs as if threatening sexual violence. Eliza is less surprised, and repeatedly expects that he will hit her.

One of the most striking scenes, however, involves Eliza and housekeeper Mrs Pearce, terrifically played by Fiona Bell. While Shaw wrote a scene in which Eliza was washed by Pearce, he also admitted that it might be left out if too difficult to stage. Here, the top half of O’Mahony’s versatile set peels back to expose a bathing area where the reluctant Eliza strips off completely to be washed by the demanding housekeeper. It’s a moment that centralizes the humiliating effect of Eliza’s reconstruction, which could only be improved upon by not being so fleetingly played nor performed behind an obscuring panel. Foregrounding this scene more would expose the play's fundamental cruelty better than words.

The darker shades are lightened by a great deal of humour. Pearce’s impatience and Higgins’ pomposity are regular sources of laughter, but it’s Lorcan Cranitch’s Doolittle that stands out. In a play premised upon the proposition that the changing of speech will alter social position, the power of Cranitch’s portrayal emanates from his wet, throaty, cockney rumble. While Higgins condescendingly celebrates Doolittle’s working-class rhetoric, Crantich’s verbal flourishes and robust physicality offer a confident counterpoint to the former’s stuffy sensibilities. Although only briefly appearing on stage, Hugh O’Conor brings a wonderful impish quality to Freddy, pecking his head and shuffling across the stage in his suit like a penguin in a hurry.

Shaw intervenes discourses of nature and nurture which were prevalent at the time of the play’s writing, and the drama is almost didactic in its conveyance of socialist thought. One of the great achievements of the Lerner and Loewe’s musical version My Fair Lady (1956) is its dismantling of wordy ideology with bursts of movement, music and song. There are points in this production where the characters have to fight not to be swallowed up by long verbal exchanges and the deep set, and by and large a lively tone and brisk pace contains these dangers.

Despite the wealth of great performances on show, it is Murphy’s Eliza who perhaps rightly wins our attention. At the outset, she is like a feral cat poised to claw anyone who comes too close. Higgins might see her formless shrieks as substitutions for meaning, and yet they say more than words might. When she, Higgins and Pickering return home after her first society ball, Eliza ghosts the apartment in subtle blue light, more vulnerable and human than we have seen her yet. And even though the character makes a profound transition in the play, Murphy carries some features through to suggest she never fully sacrifices her soul to Higgins: the slightly threatening, questioning tilt of her head which recurs throughout is something he never quite manages to undo.

Fintan Walsh

  • Review
  • Theatre

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

4 May - 11 June, 2011

Produced by The Abbey Theatre
In The Abbey Theatre

Directed by Annabelle Comyn

Set Design: Paul O’Mahony

Costume Design: Peter O’Brien

Original Music, Sound and AV Design: Philip Stewart

Lighting Design: Mick Hughes

With: Brian Hutton, Charlie Hughes, Eleanor Methven, Steve Gunn, Susannah de Wrixon, Charlie Murphy, Christiane O’Mahony, Claire Bonass, Fiona Bell, Hugh O’Conor, Joe Purcell, Lorcan Cranitch, Nick Dunning, Risteárd Cooper, Seán Óg Boylan, Kathryn O’Hart.