Eliza Doolittle is a Cockney flower girl who meets a phonetics professor named Henry Higgins. He makes it his mission to transform her into a presentable figure of high society, and faces some bumps along the way.
Anna O'Byrne, who plays Eliza, lists five things we can learn from 'My Fair Lady'.
We Haven't Come Very FarWhen approaching a project, the most important questions for me are “why this piece, and why do it now?” – what do we have to say about 'My Fair Lady' in 2017? 'Pygmalion' (on which 'My Fair Lady' is based) was written by George Bernard Shaw in 1912, four years before women got the vote. Edwardian London may look very different from our modern day Australia, but the fundamental point it makes about equality remains. In our world today, misogyny and sexism are still rife, gender parity and equal pay are still inexplicably distant prospects, and class and gender discrimination still pervade. The relevance of 'My Fair Lady' for a modern audience is patent and pointed. There are some lines and situations in the show that can be uncomfortable and disturbing – but that’s a good thing! Theatre should entrance, delight and transport, but it should also hold a mirror up and invite us to see ourselves in the reflection. 'My Fair Lady' asks some hard questions about the nature of sexism, and this production does not shy away from that. Higgins says some truly awful things about Eliza that also happen to be very funny. If we as an audience laugh at this, do we condemn or condone?
It Emphasises Female EmpowermentIn the midst of the show’s exploration of misogyny and the various societal mores and bias that allow such attitudes to exist and pervade, Shaw has written three exceptional parts for women. These characters are all of different ages and social classes – from Eliza, who pulls herself up by her bootstraps in pursuit of a better life, to the formidable housekeeper Mrs Pearce, to Mrs Higgins, in whose grace, dry wit and witheringly hilarious observations we find the soul of the piece. Even the peripheral female characters (such as Mrs Hopkins, Eliza’s boisterous landlady, and the Queen of Transylvania, in whose honour the momentous Embassy Ball is thrown), enjoy high status and power in their respective worlds. From a personal perspective, it’s wonderful to play a woman whose strength and ultimate triumph is found in her courage, intelligence, determination, emotional maturity, poise, and compassion.
It’s All In The FamilyThe play is deeply routed in family dynamics, particularly the relationships between mother and son (Mrs Higgins and Higgins), and father and daughter (Doolittle and Eliza). There is no mention of Mr Higgins Snr, and we barely hear about Eliza’s mother. It’s fascinating to watch what happens to the other people in the family equation when a parent is absent.
Image © Jeff Busby
It’s A Story Of Contradictions'My Fair Lady' takes familiar story structures and subverts them. It’s a Cinderella story that’s NOT a Cinderella story. The dirt-covered, downtrodden girl may get cleaned and polished and dressed in a beautiful gown to attend the ball, but there’s no Prince Charming nor a glass slipper in sight. It’s a romance that’s NOT a romance. The audience may wonder what happens between Eliza and Freddy Eynesford-Hill, (or perhaps between Eliza and Higgins), but the true nature of these possibilities is never fully explained or explored onstage. It’s up to our audience to listen and watch closely, and make up their own minds. It’s a bildungsroman that’s NOT a bildungsroman. It may be Eliza’s journey to become “a lady in a flower shop” that the audience is following, but at the eleventh hour, the pivotal song of growth and discovery belongs not to the student, Eliza – but to her teacher, Higgins.
There Are No Concrete AnswersMy favourite thing about 'My Fair Lady' is the ambiguous ending. I hope people leave the theatre and spend the car ride home discussing what might happen next.
'My Fair Lady' Tour Dates14 March-30 April – Queensland Performing Arts Centre
12 May-11 June – Regent Theatre (Melbourne)
24 August-17 September – Capitol Theatre (Sydney)