Queen of 'earts

26th April 1996 at 01:00
Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Timothy Ramsden reports on a new revival of a Shavian classic. Director Hugh Hodgart believes Pygmalion is Eliza's story. Like her father she is an extraordinary person; only accidents of birth separate them from Higgins. The play ultimately is about Eliza's self-realisation.

Both main characters mix good and negative aspects. "Higgins is a Shavian hero. Many things he says are admirable, for example, about the equality of human souls. But Eliza wants kindness, recognition of a kind he's not able to give her. They are too similar to be compatible, too strong willed. It's right that she should marry Freddy" (who lacks any sense of purpose in this production.) "She does not want love from Higgins, but respect. Higgins has artistic love for his creation. His feelings surprise him but do not pass into sexual attraction."

Shaw "deliberately maintains an ambiguity that doesn't allow your sympathies to settle on any character. Modern audiences may well side with Eliza as the woman and more vulnerable. But she shows a childish need to be pampered. Eliza has become part of the household, with equal status to Pickering so Higgins does not see she requires consideration. We all want to be loved, but it's not justifiable to expect to be loved." When she doesn't get what she wants she hits back and (a point clearly made in Hodgart's production) hurts Higgins by returning the ring we are specifically told he bought for her in Brighton. The ambiguity principle applies also to Alfred, her father; "Some of his views are wonderful, some appalling. Shaw throws down a lot of gauntlets but he doesn't give answers.

"In act five, Higgins says you can't apply commercial motives to human relations." Eliza cannot buy him by fetching his slippers. This contrasts Alfred Doolittle's relations with his eventual wife, which are entirely expressed in commercial terms. Hodgart also compares Alfred's misery with his fortune to the predicament of modern lottery winners.

Higgins never looks ahead. It's only a bet he takes on. The responsible women around him, Mrs Pearce and his mother, try to make him think but he won't. He's spontaneous, selfish but exhilarating, and (unlike Alfred) not intimidated.

Hodgart compares Pygmalion to Hamlet in showing the battle between the "gutter life" of "brute beast desire" and a drawing to other purposes. Complexity and refinement of thought go with expression; hence the use of language and speech as the plot's main motor. "Higgins tell Eliza in act two she is ignorant. It's society's fault, not hers, that her potential is kept locked in an inadequate vessel."

So the culminating moment in her growth is the point where she corrects her own speech for the first time. "She's still growing through that last debate, but now she's a lot more comfortable with that language. Though just as she's getting smug the rug is pulled from under her feet when Alfred surprises her" and she reverts to her street vowels.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. To May 4. Tickets: O131 229 9697. Royal Bank of Scotland tour to: Stranraer, Ryan Centre; Dumfries, Theatre Royal; Ayr, Gaiety; Aberdeen, His Majesty's; Kirkcaldy, Adam Smith; Berwick-upon- Tweed, Maltings; Glasgow, Theatre Royal

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