In 2010, “The Social Network” showed how a movie could be really good and really modern, all at the same time. And in 2015, the Shaw Festival proved the same with “Pygmalion”, a modern remake of George Bernard Shaw’s 102-year-old play. Any questions of how the play would carry over a century later were completely answered, and then some.
Professor Henry Higgins (Patrick McManus) is intrigued by a London sewer rat named Eliza (Harveen Sandhu), who wants to sell her flowers in a proper shop instead of on the side of a street. So he makes a bet with his friend, Colonel Pickering (Jeff Meadows), to see if he can’t completely transform her in six months’ time. On the surface, it seems like everyone will win: Higgins and Pickering get an incredible chance to do some really unique research and test their linguistic skills, while Eliza gets a rare shot to move up in life.
Except it doesn’t quite work out that way, as Higgins’s mother (Donna Belleville) reminds them. They’re playing with someone’s life, livelihood and future, and it’s not enough to separate the girl from the voice. But Higgins can’t, or won’t, see what’s directly in front of him, despite his intelligence in other areas.
Peter Hinton is brilliant here, with this “Pygmalion” fusing modern elements like BBC docu-bits with traditional linguistic teaching, race differences along with class ones, and a jaw-dropping set design (Eo Sharp) that even has a London black cab in it. But make no mistake: “Pygmalion” very much shows it’s firmly in 2015, with Higgins’s apartment made to look like a glossy, ultra-hip research lab, with the professor himself a slouched-over, bicycle-riding, iPad-carrying oaf (Christina Poddubiuk, costume designer).
By play’s end, when Eliza has completed her transformation in both aesthetics and attitude, and when Higgins still doesn’t/won’t understand the difference between her two selves is how she’s treated, not how she behaves, it’s clear Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is a new chapter in modern theatre and Hinton is the masterful architect. The director knows that while racial and class differences might be more pronounced in London than in Toronto, both cities still suffer from the same ever-widening gap in privilege, wealth and all the consequences each status garners.
And for their parts, the cast is equally terrific. Sandhu’s evolution is nothing short of remarkable, with her former self still visible in the new one when she lets loose a braying laugh, while McManus’s Higgins seems to stand still in comparison. Meadows plays his Pickering with gentleness and grace, tones of which are picked up by Belleville’s Mrs. Higgins and contrasted sharply by Eliza’s father, Alfred (Peter Krantz), while Mary Haney’s Mrs. Pearce is a messy-haired portrait of constant exasperation. And Julain Molnar, Kristi Frank and Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Mrs. Eynsford Hill and her daughter, Clara, and son, Freddy, all have their timing down pat (the scene when Eliza first is trotted out in public is just priceless).
Above all else, this newest version of “Pygmalion” is hugely relatable to the very diverse audience that attends a Shaw play, with elements for everyone. The newly-minted “creative class”, along with the still-there upper crust and service contingent, will see themselves on stage and that’s perhaps the single most important thing that makes this play such a success.