Radical makeover for Pygmalion at West Yorkshire Playhouse

THEATRICAL RETHINK: Rehearsals for Pygmalion at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
THEATRICAL RETHINK: Rehearsals for Pygmalion at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
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Shaw’s popular classic Pygmalion is boldly reimagined for a new production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Nick Ahad reports.

We all know the story of Pygmalion: the flower girl who becomes a guinea pig for professor Henry Higgins. It is the story of Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl who sounds like she grew up on the mean streets of...Bradford.

Not a typo, yes, Bradford.

It’s a clue that the new production of George Bernard Shaw’s century-old classic is getting something of a makeover at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this month.

Well, there’s also the fact that one of the creators of the show is theatre company Headlong, a group known well to the theatre-going audiences of Leeds for shows that look like theatre seen from a different angle. Shows like Enron and the West Yorkshire Playhouse co-production of Spring Awakening are typical examples of the kind of work the company makes.

And now, Pygmalion; only not as you know it.

Director Sam Pritchard, the Royal Court’s associate director, is in charge of the bold new take on the George Bernard Shaw classic. Does it really feature a Bradford-accented Eliza?

“Shaw wasn’t really talking about the difference between RP and Cockney,” says Pritchard. “Or rather, he was, but he was also talking about class and gender and voice and accents and how those accents relate to the world we live in.”

Which is all well and good, but really, Pygmalion in Bradford? If you’re asking the same question and are more than a little surprised to read where Eliza will hail from in this latest production, you may also be surprised to hear that this production is aimed at you.

Pritchard explains that he was speaking to Jeremy Herrin, the highly regarded artistic director of Headlong, when the idea for his new take on Pygmalion came about.

“We are quite versed in this country now in seeing European classics, Brecht and Chekhov, taken and reimagined for a contemporary audience. We also understand how the American classics can be updated and revisited to see how they fit for a new generation, but for some reason, Shakespeare aside, we don’t really do that with British classics,” says Pritchard.

So this production is aimed at the people who want to see British classics, like Pygmalion, but also understand how century old plays can be relevant to today: ergo, an Eliza from Bradford.

Shaw’s Pygmalion gave birth to the musical by which many know it, My Fair Lady, but it is an ancient story.

The notion of a teaching taking on a student and teaching them the ways of the world first appears in the ancient Greek theatrical tradition.

In Shaw’s world the pupil is flower girl Eliza Doolittle, taken under the wing of phonetics expert Henry Higgins. Eliza becomes the subject of a bet between Higgins and a colleague, the professor taking on the challenge to teach the girl how to do away with her accent and pass as though she belongs in high society.

The play today remains as it was then: a commentary on society and class. It is that which lays at the heart of Pritchard’s production and why the hero of the story coming from Bradford makes perfect sense.

“In rehearsals we keep coming back to a quote from Richard Hoggart in an introduction he wrote to The Road to Wigan Pier. He wrote ‘each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty’.

“I think that is as true today as it was when he wrote it. We like to keep Pygmalion in period dress and in 1913 because it makes us comfortable to think that the struggles of class remain in that period, rather than continuing to impact on us today.

“We want to consign the struggle of class to history rather than confront the fact that it is part of our world.”

Which is what this new production of Pygmalion aims to confront square on, with a flower girl from Bradford.

At West Yorkshire Playouse until February 25. Tickets on 0113 213 7700 or www.wyp.org.uk