Why did you want to direct this iconic play?
Pygmalion still feels like it is our best, sharpest and darkest play about how class and language work in English society. One hundred years on from when Shaw wrote it, these are issues that we’re still wrestling. We’re still entangled in how money, accent and what we say shape our identity and our place in the world. But Shaw’s plays have very rarely been approached outside their period context. Never reimagined to engage them and their brilliant arguments with how we live now. So it felt as though there was a brilliant opportunity to explore this, his most famous play in a new way. To chart Eliza’s journey with a series of more contemporary voices and explore what that kind of transformation means to us now.
Tell us a bit about the story of Pygmalion.
Pygmalion is the story of a young woman, Eliza Doolittle, and her encounter with the language expert Henry Higgins. She agrees to an experiment he proposes in which he will transform her accent, language and education to win a bet. The play charts the process of that transformation and the impact it has on Eliza’s identity and her relationship with Higgins and the world from which he comes.
What do you think is the significance of this play for audiences today?
I think we have told ourselves at various points in our history that class is dead and that the way you speak doesn’t matter to your life chances in modern Britain. But I’m not so sure that’s true. We are more trapped by the things Shaw was writing about one hundred years ago than we like to think. The language we use, what we choose to talk about, the references we understand, how our mouths shape those words all still shape how the rest of the world receives us. And these things still profoundly shape how our society is structured.
Who do you think this production will appeal to in particular?
This play is about all of us. The British and especially the English. How we approach voice and accent. But also our obsession with class. How taste, clothes, manners and money shape our very carefully stratified society. And the glorious thing about Shaw’s play is that it’s funny and quick. It moves from real darkness to farce within minutes. He’s playful and anarchic. And we’ve all encountered this story somewhere - from My Fair Lady to Pretty Woman it is a myth at the core of our culture. So it should be accessible to everyone.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this new production?
I think we want to ask audiences a question. To come and explore with us how much this hundred year old play has to say about the country we live in today. Where does it feel like we have moved on as a society and where does it feel like Shaw’s world is exactly the same as ours? How much are our lives still stratified and bound by these things and where have we broken free of them?