Yes, I know that's a line from My Fair Lady, and it's Pygmalion that Sydney Theatre are showing at the moment. But it's relevant, because I found Higgins in this incarnation to be really, really, annoying, and not at all what the script shows him to be. Eliza, seen first in serviceable cargo pants and T-shirt, does a sterling job in sharpening then flattening her vowels. Her bearing shifted nicely with her transformation, and her performance at Mrs Higgin's tea party was spot-on. She looks stunning in a nice frock.
But the annoyance isn't entirely Henry's fault, poor lamb. He's got this HUGE space to play in - there's no set and we can see right back to the black-painted walls at the back and sides of the stage - wiring, struts, the lot. We've seen this before at Sydney Theatre - memorably in Othello - but that was a Big Play, with Big Actors and huge passionate scenes. Who could forget Nonso Anozie as Othello, his back muscles rippling as he held Desdemona high and strangled her with his thumbs before our eyes? Here's what I said about it at the time:
The set was absolutely minimalist. They used the whole stage area, clear. You could see the wings and the flies and the lighting frames etc, and it was huge. But they used it all; they had conversations across it, they strode over it. For props they only used six big long wooden boxes - ammunition boxes. For indoor scenes they were covered with kilim-like mats, and they were pushed together for the bed in the final scene.
In Othello, the action was very active; it was a very physical production. Pygmalion is a drawing-room kind of play - it's Edwardian, it's claustrophic and cluttered. Its scenes are conversational and intimate. In an effort to fill the space Higgins seems to lollop like a giraffe, with big loose arm movements. In many scenes he's the only character who's moving at all, so we focus on him - and are distracted from the script. He really doesn't need to fill the space; we're happy to focus in. And, worst of all, he's a bully, which I think is a dramatic re-versioning of Shaw's character. The other characters don't respond to him as if he were a bully; they are more exasperated with him than intimidated by him. By making him a bully, this production confuses the audience. If they know their Shaw they will be looking for the fussy, pedantic, obsessive person that the script suggests that Higgins is ('on the spectrum' in modern terms, from what his mother says about him). If they don't know their Shaw they will be wondering why anyone would give him the time of day, let alone respond to him the way they do, as he shouts and swaggers and fails to hear anything they say.
And the modern setting is confusing too. In Higgins' study we see screens with digitised reproductions of voice sounds and video portrayals of speaking (including an X-ray of a speaking head). I loved these, but they are referred to by the cast as 'phonograph recordings' and 'wax cylinders' - maybe a small update to 'recordings' and 'discs' would have smoothed out those awkward script moments. There were other clashes between the modern presentation and the script. For example, I very much liked the contemporary young Eynsford-Hills, in their various awkwardnesses, but was thrown by their Edwardian occupation of attending 'open homes' (which have nothing to do with Real Estate). Little 'huh?' moments like this distracted me from the real point of the story: life transformations are hard, take time, and their outcome is uncertain. Sponsoring them, or taking the responsibility for fostering them in others, may not lead to the outcome you expect. (I expect that all successful teachers and academics need to learn this lesson.)
The other beef I had with the production was the first appearance of Alfred Doolittle. He wasn't convincing as an amiable if rather dodgy bludger, which, as he told us, he most assuredly was - one of the 'undeserving poor', a phrase which wouldn't mean as much now as it did when it was written. But in his second appearance I was won over. He carried off his transformation to a T.
I loved the patient acerbity of Mrs Pearce the Housekeeper, and Kim Gyngell's Colonel Pickering was kind but assertive, a military man crossed with an anthropologist, the kind of 'naturalist' or untrained 'scientist' that was common in Victorian and Edwardian times.
But I really, really didn't like the ending, following Eliza/Andrea to her dressing room with a video camera. I didn't understand it and it felt intrusive. Was the director trying to say that Henry couldn't let her go? Or was he highlighting Henry's inability to understand her needs? Any theories?
Added as I went to publish this: The review in the Sydney Morning Herald broadly agrees with me.