Take some raw material. Manipulate it, reshape it. Then stand back and consider what you’ve made.
That’s what Henry Higgins does with Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s celebrated satire of class and manners, first performed in 1913. But it’s also what the theatre company Headlong does with this play, which visits Liverpool Playhouse as part of a national tour. At some point, we must assume they started with Shaw’s original text, but over the course of two hours it is digitised, pixelated, filtered and rewound, and by the end, it’s not quite clear how much of Shaw’s vision remains.
The show, directed by Sam Pritchard, is theatre as a close cousin of multimedia performance art, with all the conceptual distillation and stylised presentation that that implies. Anyone hoping for a ‘traditional’ reading of the play would do well to be forewarned, although the open-minded should still investigate. Because however familiar the story – and it’s inspired everything from a famous musical to a possibly even more famous 1980s Heineken ad – Headlong can always be trusted to deliver something new.
Although there’s much technological gloss, Shaw’s plot remains intact. Eliza Doolittle is the lowly flower seller plucked from the London streets by the calculating phonetics professor Henry Higgins. In a moment of bravado, Higgins claims that he could pass off Doolittle as a duchess by taming her unruly speech (although the play’s original cockney is here replaced by an accent from deepest Leeds – a nod, perhaps, to the West Yorkshire Playhouse where this production was first seen).
Higgins’ attempt to remodel Doolittle takes both characters in directions they don’t expect, leading to questions about authenticity and the meaning of social codes. But if themes of artifice and transformation are implicit in Shaw’s text, here they are hammered home using every high-tech trick at Headlong’s disposal. From projected text to video sequences to some extraordinary sound manipulation – sometimes comic, often grotesque – this is a production that dispenses with any notion of a recognisable time, place or setting, and replaces them with a collision of free-associating intellectual games.
In all honesty, a great deal is lost – in terms of belief in the characters’ relationships and engagement with their plight at least. But there are so many crafty flourishes and daring manoeuvres that the play becomes something akin to a spectacular gallery installation or a performed essay rather than a theatre piece. A surprising, often enjoyable one at that.
The performers are given a difficult job in that many of the roles are rendered deliberately mannered and frosty, but Natalie Gavin’s Eliza Doolittle supplies plenty of much needed emotional warmth. And there are some genuinely inspired moments delivering big fat laughs that are enabled solely by the high-tech presentation. One such gag that probably flew particularly well in Leeds involves the pronunciation of a Yorkshire place name. I’m from over that side of the Pennines myself so I enjoyed the delicious joke. Unfortunately in Liverpool, the only guffaw was mine.
I’m a big fan of Headlong and regard their version of 1984 as one of the best theatrical adaptations I’ve seen, but Pygmalion doesn’t hit that level of artistic coherence. The production occasionally feels encumbered by its technological whizz-bangs, and elements that in the past I’ve regarded as Headlong’s signature effects – flickering strip-lights, a stroboscopic intensity – start to seem merely cosmetic, as if they’ve been plucked a little too easily from the shelf.
For once then, the company’s manipulations haven’t resulted in a new kind of magic, but the experience remains a fascinating one all the same. It’s an extreme treatment for the play that spawned My Fair Lady, but should Pygmalion fans therefore give it a miss?
As Eliza Doolittle might say, “Not bloody likely”.
By Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
Where: Liverpool Playhouse
When: until March 11, 2017
More info: www.everymanplayhouse.com/whats-on/pygmalion