OK, I ’fess up. When I was an English undergraduate at Southampton University, G B Shaw, along with Oscar Wilde, was a fairly easy option on the finals drama paper: well-made plays, clear political agenda, set speeches etc. So a contemporary production of probably the best-known Shavian folk story (My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman), promising special techno effects, should therefore be a sure (no pun intended) winner, no?
Problem is, times have changed, enormously. The right accent, as in RP, is almost an obstacle to success. Positive discrimination in pronunciation, as in so much else, now militates against what used to be perceived as privilege.
And if this professional co-production, by Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Headlong and West Yorkshire Playhouse, is trying to be true to Shaw’s original in any way, then surely Professor Higgins (Alex Beckett) and Colonel Pickering (Raphael Sowole) have to have upper-class accents, but they don’t, evah, at all. How and why would Higgins want to change Eliza’s pronunciation when his own, vague accent has got him privileged academic status? Rightly, Mrs Higgins (Liza Sadovy) speaks proper and Eliza Doolittle (Natalie Gavin) and her father, Alfred Doolittle (Ian Burfield), speak improper, most of the time. Weirdly, it is Higgins’s housekeeper, Mrs Pearce (Flaminia Cinque) who has the most metro, acceptable accent of them all. No doubt director Sam Pritchard has his own logic for this, but it escapes me.
So what of the special techno effects or, as the news release would have it, ‘video and sound technology’ that ‘interrogate class identity and social mobility in Britain today’? Well, there’s a kind of blank wall with a slit in it, with vegetable and flower detritus in front of it, that is the opening staging. Fine, then there are distorted recordings of various voices saying who knows what, a glass recording booth, glass boxes of various hothouses. (Clue: cultivation of rare species? Or dying species?) A set of more tropical plants with Mrs Higgins clad in the same print in the middle of it: more Darwinism? And lots and lots of video background featuring the real actors but superimposed over their own on stage presence. It is frankly all a bit Emma Rice and we know what has happened there.
There is pathos finally. Higgins dumps Eliza or she dumps him and ‘What will you do without me?’ becomes a poignant unanswered question for both of them. Henry’s mother and Henry’s housekeeper both warned him of this outcome but he wasn’t listening. It seems Eliza has a stronger chance and more moral validity for survival than Higgins. Was Shaw in fact writing an early feminist play after all? Or is this the real strength of this contemporary production?
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered? Not the first. Yes to the last. And bovver’d? Personally no, but the audience on Wednesday night filed out happy enough. You have until Saturday 13 May to decide for yourself.