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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