Reviews DublinReviews Published 5 August 2016

Review: Pygmalion at Smock Alley Theatre

Smock Alley Theatre ⋄ 3rd August - 3rd September 2016

Speaking out on misogyny and elitism: Chris McCormack reviews Smock Alley Theatre’s new production of George Bernard Shaw’s play.

Chris McCormack
Pygmalion at the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin.

Pygmalion at the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin.

Rely on Eliza Doolittle’s howl to shake up the status quo. The Covent Garden flower girl’s “Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo” never fails to upset the delicate London gentry in George Bernard Shaw’s play. The overall effect was equally too much for its audience in 1914, when English manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree altered the conclusion to provide a more positive outlook, trading in an ending resonant with women’s suffrage for a crowd-pleasing gesture of romance. “My ending makes money” argued Tree, “you ought to be grateful”. “You ought to be shot” replied Shaw.

Eliza becomes the object of a bet between two phonetics experts wagering that she could be trained to pass off as a duchess at a garden party. Director Liam Halligan’s new staging for Smock Alley Theatre is so determined that this experiment in social engineering can still stir, it dresses the play closer to the present. A drawing room draws on the concrete and glass of twentieth century architecture, and costuming provides a Topshop-like mix of modern urbanity and vintage patterns.

Since opening in 2012 (on the site of its 1622 predecessor), Smock Alley’s in-house productions, much like the Greek sculptor inspiring the name of Shaw’s play, has fallen for artefacts not out of place in a museum. The programming of long-established names such as Oliver Goldsmith, J.M Synge and Oscar Wilde owes a lot to the new energy infused by the theatre’s personnel: Olga Criado-Monleon’s anachronistic costumes, Osgar Dukes’s revelatory soundscapes, and the graduate base of the Gaiety School of Acting.

This production continues that tradition. Standing out from the jovial mix of Queen’s English and Cockneys, Anna Shiels Mc-Namee holds her ground as Eliza, a revolving ball of nerves and counter-strikes against Paul Meade’s wretched phonetics professor Henry. Mc-Namee’s highpoint is as the transformed Eliza, ushered out rigid and big-eyed to make genteel chitchat. Instead, she splutters on about murder and addiction from behind a malfunctioning upper-class veneer. In the crossing of signals, she hilariously announces “Goodbye, all”, almost fatefully, as if some kind of motivational speaker. A microphone could have dropped from her hand there and then.

The playing up of upper class stiffness is really this production’s draw. The emotional complexities of the final act are more difficult to plunge. Having run out of places to go, Mc-Namee’s delivery starts to shout and drag, while Meade struggles to break free from the rigidness of costume drama to reveal any vulnerability. But for each upset there is a spark of ingenuity: a nicely judged Deirdre Monaghan as Henry’s mother, a dutiful Andrea Clancy in supporting roles, and Colm McNally’s set design pushing the theatre’s resources.

Halligan is right to suspect that a Shavian battle of the sexes is not to be taken lightly, especially after Waking the Feminists, which calls for equality for women in Irish theatre (though it may be time for the company to address its own dearth of female voices). That is what is deserved of a drama that speaks out on misogyny and elitism, and Smock Alley pays more than lip service.

Pygmalion is on until 3rd September 2016. Click here for more information. 

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Chris McCormack is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Pygmalion at Smock Alley Theatre Show Info


Produced by Smock Alley Theatre

Directed by Liam Halligan

Written by George Bernard Shaw

Cast includes Anna Shiels Mc-Namee, Paul Meade, Deirdre Monaghan, Andrea Cleary, Tara Quirke, Jamie Hallahan, Gerard Byrne and David O'Meara

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