Even when working with a familiar play, directors and their actors can make surprising new discoveries during rehearsals.
Michael Friend, a Shaw enthusiast, noticed the parallels with Ibsen's A Doll's House when he was taking his cast through scenes in Shaw's Pygmalion. Professor Higgins, in Pygmalion, transforms Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, but does not consider her mind and desires, nor does he consider her future. In A Doll's House, the central character, Norah, has an insufferably patronising husband who is unable to understand her desire to be an independent person.
"I knew that Shaw loved A Doll's House", Friend explains. "His early plays were strongly influenced by Ibsen. It was (obvious) when we were working on the scenes about the emancipation of the woman from the man's tutelage, and his utter inability to see things from her point of view. It was the same situation between Norah and her husband."
Friend's production has an authentic Edwardian look, warm sepia tones for clothes and props and some delightful gramaphone music from the period. When Eliza is transformed into an elegantly spoken society beauty she wears an elaborate cream creation, but it is very much a man's idea of fashion. In the final scene she wears practical green, a garment she has chosen, and it is symbolic of her becoming her own person. Eliza's exit, the final moment in the play, is strongly reminiscent of Ibsen's Norah leaving her family home.
Friend has tried to keep faith with Shaw's intentions for Professor Higgins and Eliza, but the chemistry between the characters was readily apparent in rehearsal.
"Shaw had become irritated with people assumimg they would fall into each other's arms and get married," Friend explains. "In his notes for the 1941 edition, written after the play had been filmed, Shaw decided to emphasise his feelings by having Professor Higgins say - 'she's going to marry Freddy!' He fought against the expected romance. his instinct told him they would be wrong together but there is a definite charge between them."
Stephanie Chambers's intelligent playing of Eliza helps give the pupilteacher confontations a harder edge than usual. The other women, Higgins's housekeeper and his mother, are eminently practical, sensible to a fault. They are sensitivite to human feelings but Higgins and Colonel Pickering are oblivious. Higgins is a monster.
The tea party scene, where we see the newly-elegant Eliza, becomes the pivotal moment. Suddenly from high comedy the dialogue turns to issues that are clearly more Ibsenite.
When Pygmalion became the basis for the musical My Fair Lady, it became a different animal. With this production Friend has not so much revived Pygmalion as restored it.
* On tour until late July. Michael Friend Productions tel:01279 870474.