George Bernard Shaw is not as often performed as one would wish. The plays are very long by modern standards. They also have large casts, scenic complexities, make big demands of the audience to follow intricate argumentation and require ‘the style’. This neglect is a major turnaround from the 1960s when Shaw was on many stages in Australia and loved for his wit, his debates, his iconoclasm. And he was also taught in schools and universities.
A bold young company, 5pound theatre, operating out of The Owl and the Pussycat, opposite Richmond Station (Melbourne, Victoria) has changed all that. Inspired by accounts of the feats of repertory companies, they have hatched a scheme which would leave most Repertory troupes with their mouths agape.They perform five very different plays, with five actors, and five different directors, with a week of rehearsal and a week of performances in a space that seats about 40. All this on a miniscule budget (they have successfully raised $10,000 through the crowd-funding agency, Pozible). Performances are in the evening and the next play is prepared during the day. It sounds like a recipe for disaster. But on present showing, it isn’t. Jase Cavanagh and Susannah Frith, the artistic directors of the enterprise, have begun pulling off this remarkable feat with Pygmalion. For all its popularity (it has spawned a variety of spinoffs, most famously My Fair Lady), it was not the easiest choice. It’s rapid-fire debate, the cadences of the sentence, follow the line of the witty retort and have to be exactly reproduced for the humour to work – no rough paraphrases will do!
Why did the 5pound theatre performance work so well? The actors are experienced, and committed, and working full-time on the project; the play was strategically and skilfully cut; the staging is minimalist (a few chairs only – three cheers for this!); the costuming very simple. Living in an era when sets are more extravagant than ever before, I loudly acclaim 5pound theatres’ assertion of a different theatrical principle. The text and the players are in the spotlight, a brave reassertion of what’s important in theatre.
This is a work that does not date. Class as a construct of language, clothes and manners remains as true now as it was when the young Irish socialist was in full flight in 1912. Women as victims because of their dependence on men and limited scope for employment, is still a pressing issue (especially for those with children but this is not the case in this play). Shaw remains strikingly modern – a palaeo-feminist of the first wave; an unashamed Marxist; a thinker about class with a big heart. How could you not respond to Doolittle’s lament about becoming rich and its burdens?
Daniel Lammin, the Director, achieved a very effective excision of large parts of the play. To reduce 21 characters to six (one was doubled) was a feat in itself. The minor roles and subplots were completely eliminated revealing the bare bones of the play to great effect. The play began near the end and cycled back, in satisfying ways. Liza’s ‘small talk’ about the uses of alcohol for social control in the lower classes during her first public exposure at Freddy Eynsford Hill’s mansion was delivered as a monologue. One missed the amusement of the upperclass toffs, but the compensation was the focus on Eliza’s discomfiture, wrath and confusion. It was very moving and funny, with its indiscriminate blending of socially acceptable and unacceptable language and grammar:
it’s my belief they done the old woman in ….They all thought she was dead; bur my father kept ladling gin down her throat … Them she lived with would have killed her for a hatpin, let alone a hat….(Act III)
One could not but feel for the young woman, played by Freya Pragt, completely out of her depth and taken over by her own indignation and sense of entitlement. Colonel Pickering (Tom Molyneux) was perhaps a tad young for the role, but deliciously delicate compared with his colleague, Henry Higgins, played understatedly as a suave and narcissistic obsessive by Jason Cavanagh. Susannah Frith gave us a nicely contrasted Mrs Pearce, the Irish housekeeper, and Mrs Higgins, Henry’s aristocratic and feminised mother. She was compelling in the final scenes as the reprobate son gradually fell in love with Eliza, and is spurned for the best reasons in the world.
Congrats to 5pound for their brave venture. Play 1, the Irish one, was a roaring success, with full houses. Let’s hope the team can get to the end of the season standing, even performing, with as much pizzaz as they started. It’s a quixotic venture that commands admiration for its boldness.