by Lynn on July 6, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Peter Hinton
Set by Eo Sharp
Costumes by Christina Poddubiuk
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Projections by Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson
Starring: Donna Belleville
Wade Bogert-O’Brien
Kristi Frank
Mary Haney
Peter Krantz
Julain Molnar
Patrick McManus
Jeff Meadows
Harveen Sandhu

A bold updating of Shaw’s classic of changing a cockney speaking flower girl into a posh speaking sophisticated woman, that is nudged up a notch when skin colour is added.

The Story. During a dark and stormy night people rush to find shelter under the portico of St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. One of them is Eliza Doolittle, a tough-talking, cockney-accented flower-girl trying to make a living. Another person there, lurking behind a pillar, is Professor Henry Higgins, professor of linguistics. He is noting the accents of each person talking. One of the other folks there remarks to Eliza about Higgins noting what she says. Eliza is aghast and makes a commotion assurting she’s done nothing wrong. Another gentleman, Colonel Pickering, tries to calm the waters.

It turns out that Higgins and Pickering were anxious to meet each other because of the other’s facility with languages. Higgins offers that accent is what sets one Englishman against another; that one accent can propel a person forward and another can keep a person back. He boasts that he can take that common flower girl (Eliza Doolittle) and in three months of hard work can change her accent and demeanor to such an extent that he could pass her off as a duchess at the Embassy Ball. Higgins’s house is a mass of electronics; of video screens on which he charts accents, sounds etc.

The next day Eliza takes Higgins up on his wager and offers to pay him for the privilege. Higgins takes the wager. Eliza moves in to the house, now shared by Higgins and Pickering, and the work begins.

The Production. While director Peter Hinton has updated Shaw’s play to the modern day, he is still true to the spirit of the original but with a tweak here and there. He’s made a few adjustments to the text, changing ‘diphtheria’ to ‘typhoid,’ ‘bloody’ to the F-word, and a few tweaks about money.

Eo Sharp has designed a shiny set of columns and set pieces that fly in and up. In the background is a projection of the famous columned portico of St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. Columns in the foreground slide upstage to mirror those in the background. It’s raining. People hustle and bustle about seeking shelter from the rain.

Professor Higgins (Patrick McManus) in jeans, work-shirt and rain jacket arrives by bicycle (wearing a helmet). As the audience files in, you can see Higgins on stage standing, pacing, and making notes. He is hidden behind a pillar and moveable screens. When the production begins proper, Higgins notes the various accents of the people around him by tapping the phonetics into his laptop. He will also record videos on that laptop of the various stages of Eliza’s progress.

McManus gives a lively, intense performance of Higgins, who is totally committed to his craft/job to the exclusion of everything else. He is enthusiastic when talking to Pickering about phonetics. But he is impatient and downright rude when dealing with anyone else. His is clueless about social finesse and manners.

Colonel Pickering (Jeff Meadows) is an active veteran of the fighting in Afghanistan. In a neat bit of business Meadows plays Pickering with a right arm that hugs his side and appears to have been wounded in battle. Meadows, as Pickering, is courtly, courteous beautifully manner and knows how to treat people. Of course his considerate, kind treatment of Eliza has a huge effect on her and does wonders in bolstering her confidence to take on Higgins as an equal. Costume designer Christina Poddubiuk dresses Pickering for the most part in well fitted suits, a uniform and a smart trench coat. This is a gentleman in every way.

Eliza is played by Harveen Sandhu, a spirited actress who brings an edge to Eliza. And while the norm these days is to cast for acting ability while being ‘blind’ to skin colour, Ms Sandhu is cast both for her considerable acting ability as well as for being a woman of colour. Hinton takes the particular “English” prejudice in Shaw’s play of holding a person back because of one’s accent and adds the prejudice regarding skin colour, thus adding another level to the stupidity of judging a person by anything other than ability.

Hinton also focuses on the fact that money separates one class from another. In this production people accidentally drop money (usually coins). Someone drops a coin near a taxi that whisks Eliza away. Initially I think that dropped coin is just a mistake that is not meant to happen. Then someone else picks it up. Later in Higgins’s house there is a running joke about an uncomfortable bean-bag chair, but again in one scene a coin falls out of the folds of the chair. Hinton is making a subtle point—money matters in this play.

In her first scene Sandhu plays Eliza as disheveled, loud, scrappy, and quick to defend herself if she feels she is being slighted or judged negatively. It’s late and she needs to sell her flowers and woe until anyone who thinks she is selling herself. When she says “I’m a good girl, I am” she is making it plain that she only sells flowers. Her natural defense mechanisms come into play when she thinks she might be in trouble with the authorities, what with Higgins copying down her speech patterns.

I do have trouble discerning what Sardhu is saying, what with the speed in which she talks, her loudness and the accent she is using. That doesn’t mean the cockney accent is not credible. It means that this Eliza has come from away and so the accent might be hard to place (although, not for Higgins).

When Eliza is ‘cleaned up’ after coming to Higgins’s house for lessons and wears a Japanese kimono she’s been given, the change is striking. Even Higgins is taken aback. That reaction from Higgins is a lovely touch that it’s not only Eliza who is changing. Sandhu’s performance is a meticulously charted journey from harsh scrapper to formidable, confident woman who knows her worth and how to defend it.

Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s gracious, smart, commonsensical mother, knows the ways around society and proper behavior. In this production she is a working woman who is a designer of high fashion that is both hip and ‘out there.’ In her first entrance at her ‘at home day’ she wears a long t-shirt with the face of Prince Charles on it (bravo to Christina Poddubiuk for her costumes). She has finesse while Henry has none. She has sensitivity towards others and Henry has none.

Mrs. Higgins is played by Donna Belleville with style, a hint of exasperation for her always exasperating son, and kind understanding of Eliza. Belleville is both regal and ‘cool.’

Pygmalion is also billed as a ‘love story.’ But this being Shawl it’s not as straight forward as one expects. There is a devotion of Eliza to Higgins as there would be between a person who has been improved by the other person’s help. And Higgins in turn appreciates Eliza for her helpfulness around the house and for her presence. But when Eliza expects something else such as consideration, kindness and being congratulated for making the experiment work, Higgins is insulted and stubborn. After Higgins, Pickering and Eliza return from the Embassy Ball (in which Eliza is the picture of perfection), Higgins and Pickering are exuberant at the success. They congratulate each other and never mention Eliza who is in the room. She is livid.

She confronts Higgins on his behavior to her and he retorts that she is being silly. He treats her like he treats everybody. She notes that Pickering treats her with kindness and respect. Higgins is aghast at her ungratefulness. Are the clothes that Pickering bought her now hers because she doesn’t want to take anything that isn’t hers and be accused of stealing. That really insults Higgins. Then there is the little matter of the ring he bought her in Brighten. I always love his little bit of information. If there is nothing between them, then why is he buying her a ring? And in Brighton of all places? She gives him back the ring. He flings it at her in fury and leaves. She frantically looks for the ring. She certainly feels something for the man.

Mrs. Higgins berates Higgins on his bad behavior to Eliza. When Eliza and Higgins have another go at the issue, the give and take between McManus and Sardhu is electric. He is wounded and mystified at her expectations. She is wounded at his insensitivity. He wants her to come back to the house where the three of them will live like ‘mates.’ She thinks there is something more to it. He denies it. He is a confirmed bachelor and considers her behavior that of a silly woman. But when she is matching him point for point with the same intensity and intelligence then she is formidable, a worthy opponent and someone he can envision spending time with. He refuses, adamantly to say there is anything more to it. He’s not just a confirmed bachelor. He’s an emotionally stunted spoiled brat. I can picture Higgins playing Peter Pan in another play, stamping his feet, adamant that “I will never grow up!”

The playing of this emotionally charged scene is simply the best I have ever seen. Hinton has Sandhu and McManus play this very close to each other, not backing down, but showing a tenderness that has not been as obvious. They touch each other’s face as they try to convince the other of their point of view. Their foreheads tilt in and touch in a tender moment. They are emotionally raw and open with each other. It’s stunning to see. But she will not bow to his will. She is prepared to leave. He is certain she will come back.

In the most breathtaking, heart-squeezing moment, McManus holds his laptop as he plays his videos of Eliza at various stages in her instruction. She is bright, comfortable, funny and charming. He hugs his laptop to his chest, his face contorted in emotion. Because of Hinton’s exquisite direction and Sandhu and McManus’s beautiful acting it’s the first time I’m not sure it’s a certainty that Eliza will return.

Comment. I loved this production. As with any Peter Hinton production it is deeply thought, focused, clear in its intentions and by updating it to today, it has something to say about our society and not just that of England in the late 1800s. Even those times when I have not been convinced by Hinton’s interpretation of a play, you have to admire his bold imagining. I had no problems being convinced here. This is a beautifully realized production in every way.

Produced by the Shaw Festival

Run: May 31, 2015 to Oct. 24, 2015
Cast: 9; 4 men, 5 women; many as crowd.
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.