Music by Frederick Loewe
Directed by Julie Andrews
13 Campbell Street, Haymarket
Season: playing until 14 October
My Fair Lady, in spite of its sweet notes and jolly charm, left me grimacing and waiting for it to redeem itself...I'm still waiting. Eliza Doolittle, a common and lowly flower seller on the street corner, encounters Colonel Pickering and Professor Higgins in the street. Laughing about how disgusting and poor she is, the men make a bet on whether Professor Higgins can transform Eliza into a lady, passing as royalty. She goes to Higgins' house hoping for dialect lessons to improve her social standing and maybe get a job at a proper florist. Instead he treats her as a plaything to dress up and manipulate for his sake of the bet. Spoiler alert, she learns to speak proper English, tricks the upper class into believing she is of royal blood, and when Higgins wins the bet he returns to treating her like a lowly object. She gets upset and leaves, he tracks her down, and she returns to him. I think because of love? It's certainly not because he changes to treat her with full respect. What a good moral of the story...
Critical to my resentment of the production is the lack of universal human respect, in terms of the treatment of women, and of class differences. Eliza is treated in a despicable manner by Higgins when she acts like a member of the lower class, and then garners respect only when she acts like the upper class. Her voice is a tell of her poorer background and is a sign that she should be treated accordingly. Women are continually disregarded and belittled. One could argue that this is all in the name of irony - if the production is saying one thing they actually humorously mean the opposite - however when the production seems to be one big ironic joke from 1956, it all stretches pretty thin. Given that the attitudes expressed about women and class difference remain pertinent to this day among some people, it's bound to go over their heads in the audience as the production's statement of ironic protest. When I'm seeing an audience laugh at casual sexual harassment with men slapping women's bums on the street and looking up their skirt without their permission, it makes me feel sick. This is the world we live in, and it's passed off as a cheeky gesture. My bodily autonomy isn't a joke, thanks. When tired stereotypes of overbearing mother in laws and shrill women who talk too much are perpetuated, I don't laugh because opinionated women are constantly told today that we should shut up and be quiet. When there's a 5 minute song sung by Higgins crying why can't women be more like men, they're only good at fixing their hair and being frivolous, it frustrates me. If a woman wants to succeed in her career, she faces pressure from every side to act like a man, but not too much like a man...she faces ridiculous double standards. And frankly I didn't want a bar of it when I sat down in the theatre to watch a musical. A big fat ironic joke isn't so funny when this is just real life attitudes dressed up in pretty outfits with singing and dancing, feigning an attempt at warning against bad behaviour.
In spite of this, there are positives. The performances are good on all fronts. Production design is wonderful and transitions seamlessly. Dancing is good throughout and is highlighted as the musical goes on with a high-energy smattering of high kicks, lifts and jumps. Anna O’Byrne as Eliza is fantastic, her voice is impeccable and she does her best to inject a bit of a bite into the character. She sings "just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait" with gusto, and yet ultimately Eliza returns to him at the end without a hint of an apology from Higgins or sign of changed behaviour. I'm not sure what threat he should be waiting for...after she endures verbal and emotional abuse. Robyn Nevin is fantastic as Mrs Higgins carrying herself with the most integrity and apparent contemporary relevance. She manages to be both stern and compassionate and oozes elegance.
Considering that this is the whitest show you will ever see and fails to subvert harmful attitudes and stereotypes, I really question why this play is being staged today, and to such acclaim. The musical debuted on Broadway in 1956. You can attempt to claim its irony is subversive, but I think this is a halfhearted stab at salvaging an archaic musical. I wish these incredibly talented performers were in a better musical, it doesn't do them justice, and I certainly don't think it does contemporary audiences any good.