Shalom Life | July 26, 2015

Shaw Festival Review: Pygmalian

Pygmalion is not only timely, but in the hands of Peter Hinton, is a masterpiece in social commentary.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: July 24th, 2015 in Culture » Stage » Reviews

Shaw Festival Review: Pygmalian

George Bernard Shaw’s social satire about classism has been modernized and interpreted, both on stage and in film, numerous times since its inception in 1912. But in a time when research shows that there has actually been a fall in social mobility in recent decades – that is that children born to poor families are now less likely to break free of their background and fulfill their potential than they were in the past, and the rate of literacy among young people has been declared a crisis, Pygmalion is not only timely, but in the hands of Peter Hinton, is a masterpiece in social commentary.

As we have heard many times from many sources, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown dramatically in the 21st century. As the top one percent control more of the world’s resources and design a socio-economic structure that supports their continued domination, that leaves less resources and opportunities for the 99%, no matter how hard they work or how much education they get. And those individuals who have the power and influence will ensure their children secure the limited resources and opportunities that survive. The middle class is shrinking, well paid jobs are disappearing, and industries and professions are being transformed through the use of robotics and computers. Of course, there are exceptions and we all hope that our children will be the ones that somehow break through and live happily ever after. But how? And at what personal cost?

As a society we invest more and more in recreating ourselves into the images of celebrities and the top one percent who we hope to emulate. We are getting deeper in debt, our stress levels are mounting, while more and more of our happiness is being derived from the superficial material goods we consume, and the insidious belief that with them will come more acceptance, opportunity, and status. And as much as we detest that materialistic premise, we all know that to a degree it is true. However, we also must admit that these beliefs do not represent any kind of meaningful progress or solve the growing inequalities that exist in our society. It is an abdication, an abandonment of our belief in justice and democracy which may be exactly where those who control the world’s wealth may want to lead us.

The real question and paradox in Pygmalion is would Eliza, even with her new language skills and etiquette lessons, be accepted without the expensive clothes, an introduction from a member of the elite, and her new fancy address? As Eliza asks Higgins near the end of the play – what am I good for? He has transformed her, altered her manners and improved her ability to communicate. With it have been nurtured new dreams, hopes, and expectations but without Professor Higgins providing for her, she no longer is self-sufficient nor satisfied with her lot in life. This may be an analogy for an entire generation. It is definitely a wonderful teaching tool or at least the start of a fascinating discussion.

My prediction is that Peter Hinton’s Pygmalion will come to be known as his signature piece – important in its social relevance, beautifully combining modern elements and technology with traditional themes, while remaining true to the strength and artistry of Shaw’s script.

Ed Sharp’s sets are beautiful and brilliant in their design. The audience easily travels from Convent Gardens where Professor Higgins, Colonel Pickering and Eliza Doolittle initially meet to Higgins’ studio, and then to Mrs. Higgins’ uber cool showroom. The detail, textures, and colours enhance dimension and depth of the play.

Veteran actors Patrick McManus (Professor Higgins), Jeff Meadows (Colonel Pickering), and Donna Belleville (Mrs. Higgins) bring their wealth of experience and skills to their roles, creating an ensemble that perfectly complement each other. McManus convincingly plays the self-absorbed and arrogant linguistics professor who takes on the challenge of transforming Eliza. His intensity and energy creates the man we love to hate with a complexity that also allows us to see his pathetic nature. Jeff Meadows is his counter balance and colleague, a more caring and naive soul who is intrigued by Higgins’ research. Mr. Meadows, who is often seen playing audacious characters, brings a subtlety that effortlessly captures and brings to life the conflicted Pickering. Belleville creates a modern Mrs. Higgins who may have the advantages of the upper class but is trying to make her mark on the world and has a keen understanding of the realities and pitfalls of trying to climb the social ladder. Belleville masterfully personifies the woman we have all come to know, trying to fulfilling and balance multiple roles; the mother, the career woman, and the protector. She is able to communicate an entire story with one word or a look.

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