A fiery socialist, strict vegetarian and outspoken advocate for equal rights for women, George Bernard Shaw wrote 63 plays, almost all of them addressing in some way the social problems he observed.
But his most regularly performed and enduringly popular play remains Pygmalion (1911), largely thanks to the extravagant musical film adaptation it spawned – My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn as Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as the eccentric linguist Professor Henry Higgins.
Shaw disliked the film and musical adaptations of the story. He refused to attend the Oscars in 1939 when he was nominated for Best Screenplay for the Anthony Asquith-directed Pygmalion (1938) starring Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard.
Announcing Shaw as the winner, novelist Lloyd C. Douglas quipped, “Mr Shaw’s story now is as original as it was three thousand years ago.”
A new production of the Pygmalion, directed by Deborah Mulhall for the New Theatre, seeks to strip away the romantic veneers and restore the play’s radical aspect.
“On the surface, its characters may be tied to a set era, but the topics it questions are still relevant and continue to offer emotional and intellectual challenges,” says Mulhall.
Many regard Pygmalion and its adaptations as problematic. “To say that it is play which denigrates women is to misunderstand it, I believe,” Mulhall says. “It is in fact a feminist and forward-thinking play. Eliza is not looking for a husband, she is looking for self-respect. She is looking for a way out of poverty and the life of a drudge.
“But the play challenges us with so much more: questions of class and judgement, of ambition and perception, of intellect and education.”
The New’s production, designed by Tom Bannerman, draws on the Steampunk movement to disrupt the conventions of the story’s early 20th century setting.
“Steampunk encompasses a world view which combines Victorian/ Edwardian-era optimism about the future with a contemporary sense of creativity and self-reliance, of adventure and the opportunity to be whatever you want,” Mulhall explains.
“Steampunk begins with ‘what if?’ and continues with ‘how might?’. Its symbol is the cog; that of continual movement. This sentiment sits at the core of Pygmalion. Eliza is intent on moving up and out.”
“Dickens, not Disney” has been the mantra of rehearsals, Mulhall says. “After all, this is not the romanticised My Fair Lady but George Bernard Shaw in full flight.”
Pygmalion plays at New Theatre, April 23 – May 25.