“Words, words, words!
I’m so sick of words
I get words all day through.”
This was always my favourite song from Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady. Even with misguided-teen romance-goggles, I appreciated Eliza’s frustration with being told what to do, think and say. Show her! Show me! Show us!
Which is hard to do in a theatre that doesn’t let most of the audience connect with the show.
Opera Australia and John Frost have re-creacted the original 60-year-old iconic Broadway production. To bring some relevance (and bonus music-theatre nerd squee points), it was directed by Dame Julie Andrews, the first Eliza Doolittle.
And it is a glorious re-creation of a magnificent production. Those Cecil Beaton costumes! That Oliver Smith set! The Ascott Opening Race!
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, the story of the flower seller Eliza being taught how to be a “lady” by the pompous Professor Henry Higgins is well known. And as long as those romance-goggles don’t interfere with the idea of the very young woman falling for the much older man who treats her like scum and really doesn’t respect or like the women in his life, it’s an insightful reflection of the gender, class and social power that, sadly, rings as true today as it did 100 years ago.
What makes this production more than a re-creation is that contemporary opinions have shaped the performances.
Robyn Nevin as Mrs Higgins, Henry’s mother, and Deirdre Rubenstein as Mrs Pearce, Henry’s housekeeper, bring strength and power to the women who know how their social positions are controlled by others. Reg Livermore’s Alfred Doolittle and Tony Llewellyn-Jones’s Colonel Pickering balance clowning with the understanding of men who are beginning to lose their social power with age.
Charles Edwards (my Downton Abbey fan-heart smiled) lets Henry see his own absurdity, even if he refuses to budge. Edwards performance is excellent, but it is strange that there isn’t a middle aged, English-speaking actor in Australia who would have been just as terrific.
Which leaves Anna O’Byrne as Eliza. She’s wonderful. She ensures that Eliza’s choice to go to Higgins is far more than an attempt to escape poverty, and lets her heart break when she realises that her education may have left her with less than what she started with.
But if you’re sitting anywhere other than the first rows of this huge theatre, it’s difficult to appreciate what makes this more than a re-creation. It wasn’t designed or directed for the Regent Theatre. It’s visually magnificent and grand but its emotional power relies on performances and people. Even with such strong performances, I don’t know how Eliza feels in the final scene – I was too far away; even in good seats – which is the moment that makes or breaks a contemporary My Fair Lady.