American director Jeremy Thomas-Poulsen’s inspired adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play ‘Pygmalion’ pretty much has everything a modern audience would want: humour and pathos, heroes and villains, and a contemporary viewpoint and echoes of the past.
It’s challenging, intriguingly ambiguous and will blow away any expectations you might have from seeing the original or the musical it spawned, ‘My Fair Lady’. To paraphrase Professor Henry Higgins, you’d be an idiot to miss it.
Play within a play
Set in today’s Denmark, we are introduced to the cast. Astrid Lund is a third culture child brought up in the UK and France who has relocated to Denmark, the home country of one of her parents.
She is drawn to the role of Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl who esteemed phonetics professor Henry Higgins bets he can pass off as a duchess, because she can relate to her struggle to learn the language and customs of a society. (And she’s also a fan of ‘My Fair Lady’ and has clearly been practising her Doolittle squawk ever since she saw the Audrey Hepburn version.)
In contrast, there’s no such introspection in the corner of Jens Blegaa, who delivers a pitch-perfect performance. His professor is an able coach, but he is also rude and lacks manners – sound familiar?
But wait, isn’t that all a little wishy-washy – a play about a Westerner’s struggle in another Western country to learn a tricky language and integrate. And it is, but stick with it and cringe it out because it will rip those expectations clean away.
Jamal: the joker in the pack
As the second act starts, a number of different elements start to dawn on you. A brilliantly-crafted scene in which Lund’s ‘real-life’ partner (Pejman Jamal) grills her on the Danish vowel sounds is interwoven with interaction with Higgins.
Jamal is the play’s enigma. He has a minor role in the play (Eliza’s love interest, Freddy), but it might have to be cut we are told during the introductions. After that it’s easy to presume his involvement is mainly for humorous effect (and he’s clearly an audience favourite).
But it’s only in the second half that you realise he has a hold over Lund. He’s subjugating her in the same way Higgins is Eliza (you complicitly laughed as he mimicked her in the first act, but now you realise he might be an ogre).
Imagine this: he could be a Danish man in his 60s, and Lund could be a young Thai, Filipino or Ukrainian woman. The First World problems wouldn’t look so First World anymore – is that nearer the knuckle for you?
Meanwhile, Freddie and Eliza smooch around 1920s London – racy stuff if you’re sitting on the front row. But is it Freddie? Maybe Lund’s getting it on with a young actor, finding happiness away from her dirty old, old man.
The fair lady underpinning the play
Men, we are told, are to blame for everything by Vanessa Poole, and hers is the voice of feminism that runs through the play.
Through her three different roles, she is the true link with the audience, knowingly staring them out (with humorous effect) as the patriarchs of the piece go about their frivolous lives as if the Victorian Age had never ended.
Poole, quite brilliant in all three parts, is arguably the main character of the play, underpinning how men like Higgins and to a lesser extent Colonel Pickering (Frank Theakston, who like Blegaa, is mostly acting in the traditional sense) abuse women and continue to do so today.
The maestro pulling the strings
Good theatre should make us think. But it helps if it’s visceral, and in the case of ‘Pygmalion’, it doesn’t disappoint. Music (reminiscent of ‘Educating Rita’ at times), effects (let the rain never stop!), clever lighting (have single light bulbs ever been so effective?) and projection (some lovely era stills – Eliza ripping down the sheets was a standout moment) combine superbly under the scenographer’s (who else but Thomas-Poulsen) watchful eye.
The CTC are lucky to have found Thomas-Poulsen, a young American with a degree in theatre direction. As well as overseeing last year’s ‘The Dining Room’, he has found various jobs in Danish theatre, and (with a little bit of luck – had to get a ‘My Fair Lady’ line in there somewhere) is clearly on his way to the top of his profession.
In the meantime, his name on CTC productions will continue to be a byword for excellence.