More than words

First-class direction and performances draw new meaning from Shaw's classic


The most surprising thing about this production of George Bernard Shaw's best-loved play is that its "sanguinary element", as Colonel Pickering calls it, still works. I had been a little dreading the famous line, just as I dread "A handbag!" in The Importance of Being Earnest - it must be easier to make something new of "To be or not to be". But at the Old Vic, under Peter Hall's pretty damn faultless direction, when Eliza says, "Walk? Not bloody likely," it catches you almost by surprise and is so funny you are laughing a minute later.

It is a giddily well-written scene, the play's best, but tense also, for you fear that Eliza will be humiliated. Instead, she is a huge hit, thanks to the stupidity of the Eynsford Hills, the other guests in Mrs Higgins's drawing room. Freddy is blinded by Eliza's beauty and his sister mistakes her racy vernacular for "the new small talk", while their mother simply sees her behaviour merely as further evidence of a world moving on too rapidly. The social failure is Henry Higgins, the old dog who cannot learn new tricks. Watching Michelle Dockery as Eliza slowly enunciate her first posh words and then move up several gears until "I say them as pinched it done her in" comes out in pinched RP, is like watching an expensively wired robot short-circuit.

Dockery is excellent. Her secret is never for a moment to regard Eliza as either a comic or a tragic character. She is just a serious one. The more Higgins builds her vocabulary, the more she discovers the tools to explore her emotions. By the end, the tools have become weapons with which she can battle with him. On the other side of the ring, Tim Pigott-Smith finds a light, boyish side to Higgins. He is arrogant and irresponsible but he does not take himself half as seriously as she does.

Plenty of questions are raised by the play - whether class or character determines destiny, whether society will survive its new social mobility, whether men and women belong to different races - but psychologically the question that needs an answer is what is wrong with Higgins. Higgins, the expert in phonetics, knows the sound of everything but the meaning of very little. He is, as we would now say, erotically illiterate. But that is nothing unusual. The mystery is what happened to the man's sex drive, why he finds no interest in women under 45. Worryingly, when confronted with his confirmed bachelor status by his mother, he tells her he is looking for a woman exactly like her. Did Freud ever write about this play?

In the musical, My Fair Lady, his friend Pickering ends up in drag. Here there is nothing going on between the two men beyond friendship, but it is a very intense friendship. Hall has them return home from a long night out at the opera, humming "The Pearl Fishers Duet". We note that Higgins's best shot at winning Eliza back to his home is to offer her "good fellowship".

It is an offer this newly liberated lady can only refuse. Eliza has become a proto-feminist and to surrender to anyone for anything less than love would be impossible (in the case of the smitten Freddy, his love for her rather than hers for him). But we cannot help wonder why Higgins does not make a final romantic lunge. Shaw meant us to feel the sexual tension, generated not least by the endings of all the romantic comedies we have seen.

In the final act, Hall has Higgins kneel before Eliza. The curtain comes down on him alone, centre stage, defeated, not even enough part of society to join the wedding party of old man Doolittle. He regrets for the first time who he is. The word-man is silenced.

The other surprise is how ill we recall the play. It is not about phonetics; there are no scenes in which Eliza is taught how to speak. The romance does not kick in until after the interval, after the statue has come to life and the slippers get chucked. Class is explored not by Higgins but by Eliza's dad, who dreads bourgeois respectability as Higgins dreads marriage. He is as nonsensically articulate as Higgins - and in Tony Haygarth's incredible performance gets through his lines at a much greater rate. Only the last scene slows down. It is wordy and unclear. Yet somehow it works, too. The whole thing does.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis