Enigma Theatre

Theatre Company based in Elmbridge

"We're Always Talking Eliza"

 

During rehearsals, Stephen and Ricky sat down with Melisa Ramadan (Eliza Doolittle), John Elnaugh (Henry Higgins) and Christopher Peacock (Colonel Pickering) to find out some of their thoughts while working on PYGMALION. Here is a full transcript.

 

SW: Welcome. I wanted to ask you some questions today and hopefully prompt a bit of discussion about the play, and about how you’ve found it to work on, what you’ve enjoyed, what you make of it and so on. So let’s start by talking a bit about some themes in the play. Now, to me, there’s a lot about independence; especially women’s independence and women’s changing role in society in the early 20th century. And then at the same time, you’ve got the class system, and the rigidity of that at the time, versus social mobility; and Eliza’s journey encapsulating both those ideas. What are your thoughts?

 

MR: Definitely. I think that Eliza’s journey is one that does encapsulate a lot of what was going on at the time. Obviously the play was written in 1912 and that was a big time in history for the Suffragette movement; they were becoming a little bit more militant in the way they went about things, so I think a lot of that is reflected in the play. And I think a huge amount of that is reflected in her journey from the beginning to the end. I think the interesting thing is that, even when Eliza is impoverished at the beginning of the play, she still has a fierce independence about her, even before we get to Act Five, and I think that is the fascinating thing about her, actually, that, even before she’s taken in hand by Higgins, she’s not really an ordinary flower girl to begin with. That’s what I tend to think. Actually I read that somewhere as well, that someone wrote, that she’s not an ordinary flower girl to begin with, she’s already got a fierce independence in that she won’t degrade herself by doing certain immoral things that she accuses the other girls of doing, and so, already before she gets sucked into this social ladder that she starts to climb, she’s already got that fierce independence which she fights for throughout, really. She fights for that, and it changes in the way in which she is able to have it, and I think the struggle gets harder, but I think that’s something from the very beginning she’s always wanted. And I think that is a reflection of exactly what was going on at the time.

 

JE: I think the play was written at a time of social mobility. The 20th century saw a lot of people rising to positions of power and authority regardless of their background, and regardless of a still very rigid class system. The point to remember about Eliza is that it would have been impossible for her to rise, unless she spoke properly. She couldn’t have had a career. It’s reflected very, very strongly in the play; she couldn’t have worked in a shop, leave alone be passed off as a duchess. She couldn’t have held any reasonable position if she spoke the way she did. If she’d carried on in that manner she would have stayed in the gutter.

 

CP: I think Eliza is the very model of a modern girl, way back in 1914; quite simply because, in the beginning, when she’s in Covent Garden selling her flowers, she has an answer for everything, at a time when women didn’t always have an answer, and if they did, they certainly didn’t voice it! Sure, she came from the “gutter”, from a different class, but it didn’t stop her having thoughts and views, from the moment the play begins, about everything. And this is what, in a way, stirs everyone around her; whether it’s Freddy Eynsford-Hill, whether it’s Professor Higgins or Colonel Pickering. All of them are attracted to her for a different reason, like a magnet, round which all of us are drawn. I, as Pickering, I think, although I’m an elderly gentleman, I end up having quite a crush on this girl, and I know right from the outset when I first meet her that I like her, and although Pickering can be seen as a bit of an old buffer, an old blimp, he’s also a bit of a modern man. He understands, I think, an independent woman, of whom Eliza is the embodiment.

 

SW: Now, as you know, many people are more familiar with the story through the musical version, My Fair Lady. Personally, I’ve found working on the original play to be extremely rewarding. But what do you think works well about the musical? And what do you think is stronger about the play which is perhaps lost in the musical?

 

JE: The musical is a musical comedy, and it is a perfect example of it, but it loses the play’s darkness. Higgins is a much lighter, more amenable character, even in his less reasonable moments, but there is a great darkness to his character in the play.

 

MR: I’ve always been a huge fan of My Fair Lady as a musical, and I think what John says is right, they lighten it a lot, and they sentimentalise the relationship especially. In all areas, really, even between Mrs Pearce and Higgins; in the play there’s still a lot less reference to her wanting to leave him. It’s set up as a much more sentimental world, and especially with the relationship with Higgins and Eliza; the fact that they romanticise that, which would have made Shaw turn in his grave, essentially, because that’s not what the play is about. And actually, rewatching the musical has made me realise how much of the character journey of Eliza that just undoes within a second, and I just think that’s a real shame, because actually this is about an emerging independence, this battleship character who is going to go out and make it on her own. And coming back to a doting Higgins who wants to know where his slippers are is just... ugh, as a modern woman, just is very frustrating actually to rewatch. And I do think that’s something that I’ve relished in working on the play, is actually this is about something a little bit bigger than a romantic fable. It’s been Hollywood-ised. But I still love the musical and I think it has its place. But I think it’s great to be actually showing the original play for what it should be.

 

CP: The musical is a great Hollywood piece that has entertained millions across the world; whenever it plays people are there, Christmas time, any time. It’s saccharine, it’s sentimental, it’s fluffy and frothy and very pretty to look at it. But what it essentially misses, that Mr Bernard Shaw was talking about, is wit, is social class, is, as John says, the darker themes of the time. It entirely misses that. Everything is very sentimental and wonderful to look at, and that’s what a musical is about, but it truly isn’t what George Bernard Shaw was writing about. Shaw writes with enormous wit – rapier wit, at times – it’s so sharp, it crackles at its best, and that doesn’t really happen in My Fair Lady; My Fair Lady is about beautiful dresses, beautiful songs, beautiful people, but that isn’t essentially what Pygmalion is about.

 

SW: I was thinking about what we were saying the other day about the stylised elements, like the Ascot scene for example, and that world that she encounters, and trying to fit into that. Perhaps that’s something that you can only really properly do in a musical? And that’s a nice opportunity to do that.

 

MR: Yeah, they do really visually represent very expressively and very beautifully the Ascot scene, and that social class differentiation – I do think they do that well in the musical. The Ascot scene is so precise and clean, and polished and beautiful, that it really does act as a contrast to what we’ve seen before. And I think because generally musicals are a little bit more visual, and there’s bigger costumes and there’s more license to be a little bit more theatrical, I do think that they get the difference in the worlds across a lot clearer, potentially.

 

JE: I think Shaw was aware when Pygmalion was staged that he was more limited in what he was able to do. My Fair Lady was staged originally at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where they had the opportunity to fly in sets and to create very, very many different scenes, which he simply wasn’t able to do; I mean, he couldn’t really have the ball scene effectively, for example, so he could only show a very limited part of what he might have been able to, and My Fair Lady is able to take that vision and expand it exponentially. But having said that, I mean, I’ve done it, and I absolutely loved doing it. And it is just a wonderful thing to watch; I’ve seen it many, many times over the years on stage with various actors in the lead role, and as I say, I’ve done it, and it does work, and it is a wonderful, wonderful piece to do, but it quite simply, at the end of the day, isn’t Pygmalion!

 

MR: Yeah, I agree, it’s a different creature in its own right.

 

JE: If we look at a Hollywood musical, for example, Easter Parade is far closer to the darkness of Pygmalion, than, ironically, My Fair Lady is. That is written by a hugely talented writer, Sidney Sheldon, who went on to have a marvellous career, but he adhered very, very much more closely to the original classic tale and to the play.

 

SW: Thank you. So, individually: what’s been the greatest challenge for you, either in playing your character or in working on the play as a whole?

 

JE: Remembering the lines...

 

[Laughter]

 

MR: Ditto! They’ll be ours.

 

JE: Oh, no, no, no, seriously speaking, it is so wonderfully well-written, and you can’t fail to admire a playwright’s skill when you’re given a part that is so well-realised, and so well thought-out, as they all are. There’s the old saying, there are no small parts, but small actors, but in this there are no bad parts whatsoever.

 

CP: Absolutely right. I think the thing about Colonel Pickering is that he’s kind of the shadow in the chair, in a respect. He is Professor Higgins’s friend, he’s there throughout the entire play, and the challenge is actually remembering these one-liners that come in every other second/third page! And in remembering that, keeping very sharp focus, in order that you don’t for a moment lose – not only with the action and what’s going on, but who you are and what you’re meant to be coming in with next. But, set against that, the lovely thing about Pickering is the relationship he has with Eliza, more so in a way than the relationship he has with Higgins. Higgins and he are united in their love of phonetics and words, but there is an emotional thing I think, and it’s quite simply a friendship and a respect that Pickering has for Eliza. He sees it very early on, in Covent Garden when he’s still gracious enough to look for some pennies; he won’t just discard her and leave her. “I’m sorry, I haven’t any change – wait – here’s three hapence,” altogether showing at once the essential kindness and generosity of the man. But he’s not to be messed about; he gets annoyed and he gets irritated with Higgins, but always, always there’s a protective feel about his relationship with Eliza, from start to finish, right down to the imploring at the end of the play: “Do stay with us”. And that’s a wonderful thing to be able to play. And I love presenting her at the ball; I do feel like a very old man who’s suddenly got a daughter on his arm as it were, that he never had. So I’m a lucky boy to have got the part!

 

SW: And Mel, what about your greatest challenge?

 

MR: Oh, there’s so many. The thing with Eliza is that, essentially, if you were to take the play in isolation, visually and aurally it’s like two different characters; so there is a sense that her voice changes, her appearance changes, her physicality changes – everything about her essentially changes. And I think the challenge for me is to keep a through line of what is, as Higgins says, that “spark of divine fire” that makes Eliza Doolittle. And I think that is the greatest challenge for me, because I think, for an audience, they see a lot of these changes, these lavish costume changes, and obviously the way she speaks and behaves, but you’ve got to keep that core of who is this woman. Because at the core, she does undergo changes, but also, as I said before, she’s always been a different flower girl to begin with; and I think the challenge for me is to get the essence of her across, through all these other huge changes that are happening that everyone’s seeing. So I think that is the big challenge for me, I think. And ultimately then, her becoming a balance of all of these different elements by the end, which is a real juggling act, to incorporate everything – everything she’s learnt on her journey to become this consort battleship at the end. She’s a delicately, finely-tuned – well, she’s on her way to becoming a finely-tuned character of all these different things she’s learned. And that’s tough; it’s tough, because she does undergo one of the biggest changes in the play, obviously. But it’s about keeping – it’s almost about what stays the same, in a way, and keeping the essence of that. That is a challenge, I think, with so much changing around her.

 

SW: Thank you. And what have you enjoyed the most?

 

MR: The costumes... [Laughter] No. Yes, I mean I do love the costumes, but no, what have I enjoyed the most...? The thing with Eliza is that she’s just so much fun to play, because, despite what I’ve just said about the challenge, she is different in every single scene; there’s always something going on, she’s animated, she’s expressive, you have license to just be incredibly fun and silly with her, and yet also have this poise and sophistication. She covers this huge spectrum of emotions and characteristics, so she is just huge fun to explore and expand in as a character. So it’s really hard to say what is the best part of doing her, but I just love every moment that I’m onstage as Eliza!

 

SW: And John, what would you say you’ve enjoyed the most?

 

JE: Well, the challenge of the role; it’s just a wonderful role.

 

SW: Is it a role you’ve wanted to play for a long time?

 

JE: Oh, absolutely, yes. Absolutely. Always.

 

SW: Is it how you always imagined it?

 

JE: Oh, definitely. Definitely, yeah, yeah.

 

RZ: I’ve thought of a question, actually. We’re presenting this a hundred years since it was first performed in London. Why do you think this is a play that we’re still celebrating a hundred years later, and why are audiences still enjoying it?

 

MR: Well, I think, obviously we live in a completely different world now, in terms of society and class – I mean, obviously we still have our own modern day issues to grapple with – but I think that, at its core, this is about a woman gaining independence. It’s not just about a woman, it’s about a human being gaining independence, gaining knowledge and trying to lead a balanced life with people around her who think and feel very differently to her. And I think the way in which all of the characters try and meet in the middle, are constantly trying to sort of navigate around one another, I think that is just timeless, really. It’s timeless, them trying to understand one another and understand the needs of one another, and what they want from each other and how what they do affects the other, and that is never going to die. That is never going to die and I think that’s, for me, what is still alive about it today. There’s a lot of emotion running through this play; it’s not just about the class system of 1912, it’s still got so much relevance in terms of just the human relationships, I think. And the characters – the characters are so bright and bubbly and fizzing, they just don’t seem dated at all, I think.

 

JE: All great drama holds a mirror up to nature. It reflects many aspects of people’s lives, and that is what always fascinates.

 

CP: Times don’t change that much, really. It might be 2014 today, not 1914, but women are still talking and debating about equality, fairer rights, more wages, more positions of authority. The downtrodden are still downtrodden and in need; food banks are in every town in the country, poverty is still around, and the class system is definitely still about – just look at politics today at the moment. So I don’t think much has changed, really, and for all those reasons, as Mel says, it’s about life; it’s about the way we think and feel, and love and fail. You get an audience in on that, whatever the play is called.