A fresh take on Pygmalion

GB Shaw’s great play comes to the Town Hall studio

A NEW staging of GB Shaw’s Pygmalion, at the Town Hall studio, re-imagines this classic 1912 comedy about gender, class, and identity for the present day and in the theatrical style of Bertolt Brecht. The play, the inspiration of the hit musical My Fair Lady, sees the arrogant Professor Higgins transform common flower seller Eliza into a genteel lady, for a bet.

This production is the public showing of a Practice as Research project, by NUI Galway PhD student Aisling Smith. Her PhD as a whole, Re-directing George Bernard Shaw: Exploring Shaw's Play-Texts for Contemporary Audiences through Practice as Research, seeks to highlight the modern relevance of Shaw’s plays by using diverse theatre and staging techniques. Smith previously presented a site-specific performance of Shaw’s 1915 comedy O’Flaherty VC at Coole Park, while her next project will be a documentary theatre-style interpretation of San Siobhán, Siobhan McKenna’s 1950 Irish language version of Shaw’s St Joan.

For this project she has paired Shaw’s Pygmalion with the techniques of Epic Theatre as envisioned by Bertolt Brecht. By applying this political performance style to the play, its current social messages are brought to the fore.

Smith’s passion for theatre stems from her time at UCD where she was very active in Dramsoc while doing a BA. She then went to London where, in 2011, she completed an MA in Text and Performance at RADA. After returning to Ireland she worked with the likes of Fishamble and Royal Irish Academy of Music before deciding to pursue her PhD at NUIG.

It was while she was at RADA that Smith became interested in George Bernard Shaw, as she tells me during a pre-rehearsal chat on Sunday afternoon: “Shaw was one of the influential people who championed RADA when it was beginning. He donated the royalties of Pygmalion to RADA and when he died he left a third of all his royalties to them. One of RADA’s theatres is named after him and they also have different memorabilia of him there. As an Irish student there I was really proud of the link and it got me interested in him. I feel he is somewhat under-acknowledged here in Ireland as being a great Irish writer.”

Smith explains why she chose to deploy Brechtian techniques in her staging of Pygmalion: “The play is inspired by the Greek fable of Pygmalion making a statue that comes to life and that’s what Shaw does with Eliza through Higgins’s use of language; he makes a new woman of Eliza. That fable idea fits Brecht. There are Brechtian elements in the play as well; the fact that it is episodic, each act could be a stand-alone piece. There are also moments where Shaw creates Brechtian gestures such as when Higgins eats an apple then discards the core while he’s talking to Eliza which illustrates the notion of him exploiting and discarding her. So I felt the play was Brechtian to begin with.”

Another innovative feature of Smith’s production is its use of different time periods; “The play was written in 1912 but is still relevant today so each act is set in a different era,” she reveals. “The first act is set around 1910, the second act in 1930, third act in 1960, the fourth act in 1980, and the final act in the present day.”

The cast of Pygmalion includes Kieran Connolly (Professor Higgins ), Ophelia Mortimer (Eliza ), Cillian Browne, Aoife Corry, Hazel Doolan, John Farrell, Siobhra Ní Chianain, Grainne O’Reilly, and Roisín Tyrell. The play runs at the Town Hall Studio, from Wednesday, November 30th to Saturday, December 3rd, at 8.30pm nightly. Tickets are €18/€15.


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