Pygmalion, Chichester Festival Theatre
Thursday 22 July 2010
The potency of Pygmalion resides in its conflation of so many theatrical myths: the king who falls in love with the statue he carves; Svengali creating his ideal actress; Cinderella transformed from kitchen girl to belle of the ball.
What is less often revealed is the tragedy of Henry Higgins, the blinkered, misogynist phonetician who sets out to make a duchess of the guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle and is abandoned by her at his moment of triumph. This is one way in which Bernard Shaw's 1912 play reclaims the ascendancy over its sentimentalised derivative, My Fair Lady.
And it's a point beautifully made in Philip Prowse's sleek revival, with Eliza's wedding bells sounding like a death knell in Higgins's ears; Rupert Everett sits alone downstage, a bearded manipulator, slumped in defeat and pierced to the soul.
How this happened is more interesting than in most Pygmalions. Everett stalks his prey in Covent Garden like a mountain eagle, a creature of the night discovered on Prowse's theatrical setting of light bulbs, red curtains and multi-coloured false proscenium in a Wagnerian thunderclap.
Everett's Higgins really is tall, dark and handsome, but he's also a man unknown to himself, let alone his own mother – played with imperial definition by Stephanie Cole – or his old mucker Colonel Pickering. When Peter Eyre's gaunt and sonorous Pickering asks his friend if he is a man of good character "where women are concerned" you feel he's stumbled on a minefield.
This darker texture is reinforced by the euphoniously named Honeysuckle Weeks, playing Eliza as Higgins sees her. She's as much an invention of his from the start as she is a yowling caricature, a squashed cabbage leaf, not the statuesque beauty with the rough edges knocked off as played by Michelle Dockery in the last major revival at the Old Vic.
Her arrival at Mrs Higgins's "at home" is hilarious precisely because she's gone to another extreme, not discovered a new way of being treated better. And she looks amazing in her cream and coffee-coloured silks and satins, prodding the floor with her parasol before unleashing the line that stopped the show when Mrs Pat Campbell first delivered it: "Walk? Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi."
In his glory days at the Glasgow Citizens, Prowse found many ways of making high comedy look entirely modern, and although his costumes here are accurately Edwardian, everyone looks the opposite of museum dummies: Susie Blake bustles and fusses, but not "mumsily" like Peggy Mount, say; Peter Sandys-Clarke is puppyish and plausible as Freddie Eynsford Hill; and Marty Cruickshank perfect as his severe, ostrich-feathered mother.
Prowse solves the problems of a vast stage with stunning use of the lift – Higgins's study rises up with just one phonograph and a vase of white lilies – and full exploitation of the apron. There's no attempt to cut the place down to size: so when Phil Davis turns up as Alfred Doolittle, authentic spokesman of the "undeserving poor," he delivers his working-class sermon of knotted fury, centre stage, flat out. That speech, and the play, flies like the wind.
To 27 August (01243 781312; Cft.org.uk)
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