Andrea Demetriades and Marco Chiappi in Pygmalion | Sydney Theatre

Erstwhile Bell Shakespeare associate artistic director Peter Evans brings an air of great expectation wherever he goes. This is, of course, thanks to sheer imprimatur, but also form. George Bernard Shaw also has form. His romance in five acts, Pygmalion, can often, ironically, be obscured by its very fame and ubiquity in adaptation, be it the unsurpassable My Fair Lady, Educating Rita or Pretty Woman.

Unfortunately, the populism these have brought to bear tend to de-legitimise one of the very finest works of English-speaking theatre. The challenge for producers and directors is to impart something new; to avoid repetition. At least, that’s the task they tend to set themselves. I actually believe it’s such a fine, honed piece of writing it needs no reinvention. And, despite allusions and pretensions to reinventing it, Evans has really just given a great, old play a new lease on life by casting great actors and ensuring a fine reading.

Indeed, the directorial interventions for this Sydney Theatre Company revival tend to be needlessly avant-garde, or pseudo avant-garde; feeble attempts to justify reproducing the play. Yet it needs no justification. At least not to right-thinking theatre patrons, unafflicted by the contagious disease that has as a primary symptom an uncontrollable, almost involuntary propensity to show off to one’s peers, so as to buy back-slapping or cheek-kissing acceptance at opening night drinks.

What I’m saying is it’s unnecessary and devaluing to open the play with a gimmick: actors, in semi-darkness, standing in the wings, reading lines; with no particular aural perspectives. It’s confusing and dumbfounding and I, for one, was relieved when the actors started moving and acting. It might be conventional, but it works, where the unconventionality I describe fails utterly in this context. It’s all very well-and-good, too, to strip the cavernous Sydney Theatre stage back to its true, underlying, bare bones, black box identity and mingle Edwardian furniture with high-tech electronic equipment (deployed by Higgins in his evil linguistic lab), but these are trifles and conceits which have little or nothing to do with the essence of the work and have much less impact upon it, or us, than, I’m sure, is intended.

But don’t think, for a moment, these slightly adverse observations mean I didn’t like the production. Far from it. It’s just that I found these things to be distractions, not enhancements. And, by rights, nothing should distract from such a well-written play, involving some of the strongest and most memorable characters in the history of drama. Beyond the quibbles, I was left in awe of and admiration for the standard of performance; tight synergy of set and lighting design; thorough interrogation of the complexities and contradictions of key characters; resonant allusions to Ovid, who inspired Shaw.

Foremost among the performances is Marco Chiappi’s as Higgins. One might, with some legitimacy, call it overly mannered, perhaps a little too studied (at one point, with arm swinging in front of him as if withered, chimp-like, he almost seems to become an unhappy hybrid of Richard III and Quasimodo). But almost every squint, posture, gesture and movement is designed to explicate the brash and eccentric personality of the not-so-good professor. In terms of sheer craft, Chiappi shows himself to be the actor’s actor, the sort of guy you’d be very happy to have as a tutor and mentor.

Right up there next to him is Andrea Demetriades, who probably manages, better than anybody, to bring Eliza and the play believably into the present, with great naturalness and an impressive aptitude for communicating the subtlest shifts in emotional profile. All the more impressive for the fact she’s dealing with a confusing collapse of the Edwardian and electronic ages, a directorial reality she seems to take on-board much mores than her colleagues.

Kim Gyngell, as Pickering, wavers between confident characterisation and surprising awkwardness. Harriet Dyer, Vanessa Downing and Tom Stokes, comprising the poor Eynesford Hills, are the very picture of the consummately dysfunctional family and a treat to observe. Deborah Kennedy’s Mrs Pearce, Higgins’ stern and reviled (by him) housekeeper, is similarly an exact portrait of brusque Scottish efficiency. David Woods takes a few minutes to get into his stride but, once there, is fit to give even Stanley Holloway a run for his money as the live-up-to-his-name Alfred Doolittle. And perhaps the most delightful surprise is Wendy (where’s she been?!) Hughes, arguably delivering the role of her career as Mrs Higgins, the mother from whom her son is barely weaned.

Cate Blanchett summed up the contribution of set designer Robert Cousins when reading the tedious, obligatory roll-call of contributors names: “Set design (or lack thereof), Robert Cousins.” The much-less-is-more approach has somehow sufficed to bring the play into the present and certainly throws emphasis onto performance, in a way that’s probably the greatest strength of this production. Damien Cooper’s lighting is often brilliant and striking; at others rather strangely subdued, making for an experience rather like feeling one’s way around the Batcave. I’m not sure Alan Johns’ composition is needed, but it’s an aural pleasure nonetheless.

The temptation to appear hip to one’s peers, particularly when reviving such an uncompromisingly ‘square’ play, has been ostensibly resisted, thank Krsna. The opening gambit, entailing ‘disembodied’ voices, is inscrutable and utterly out of context, but that aside this is a welcome reiteration of a truly great play, of such literary, historical and psychological depth it truly has the legs and arms to reach us well into the future.

But even in enjoying it as much as I did, something niggled which has only really crystallised after the fact: why the cavernous darkness and isolation? Sure, we feel the differing loneliness and dislocation of Higgins and Eliza and it may serve to underscore these aspects of their experience, as well as ours. It’s a different emphasis. But it seems to me these qualities are implicit to the skilfulness and precision of Shaw’s dialogue and making these qualities explicit through set design and such might well be deemed hamfisted.

And of equal or greater merit is a journey into the cloistered, claustrophobic nature of Edwardian society and, for that matter, our own.

Kim Gyngell, Andrea Demetriades and Marco Chiappi in Pygmalion | Sydney Theatre

The details: Pygmalion plays Sydney Theatre until March 3. Tickets from the STC website.

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