An actor who works from the outside in – that is to say one who regards getting the look right as the way into playing a part – Bertie Carvel has gone from being a frighteningly convincing Donald Trump in The 47th to offering a fresh take on Henry Higgins in less than two years.
Everyone knows only too well what Trump looks and sounds like, but Higgins is what any actor wants to make of him, even if Rex Harrison’s performance in the stage and film version of My Fair Lady is taken as the benchmark performance.
Carvel’s Higgins in Richard Jones’s revival of Pygmalion – the straight play on which the musical My Fair Lady is based – is stooped, fussy, snobby, sociopathic and more than a little autistic. He has none of Harrison’s charm or sex appeal, but, probably, thinking about how George Bernard Shaw wrote the play, it’s the more logical interpretation.
If he were alive today, Laurence Olivier, another actor known for working from the outside in, would almost certainly have approved greatly of Carvel: he has all of that late, great man’s bravery and determination to put his own imprimatur on the parts he plays and wants to constantly surprise audiences.
His is a brilliantly clever and innovative Higgins, and, while familiarity can all too often breed contempt for this particular play, he makes it feel bold and exhilarating this time around. Patsy Ferran as Eliza Doolittle – the flower girl Higgins seeks to pass off as a lady in high society – communicates, meanwhile, a soul infinitely darker and more damaged than Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn played in respectively the stage and film musical version.
There are a lot of laughs to be had in the play – most of them in this revival courtesy of John Marquez as Alfred Doolittle – but it is ultimately a story of social climbing, which Shaw recognised has long been too much of a national obsession. This production gets across better than any I have seen what a preposterous, poignant and ultimately pointless activity it is. Thoroughly recommended.
Pygmalion runs at the Old Vic, London, until October 28