Last Saturday I spent a fortune on a ticket to see Opera Australia’s production of My Fair Lady, and although the ticket price isn’t usually relevant in judging a theatrical production, in this case there is an amusing irony in exhorbitant ticket prices that I’m sure escaped the producers’ attention.
We pay, of course, because we have high expectations of Opera Australia; and the extravagant sets and brilliant costumes combined with the magnificent performance by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra dazzle us into believing that we’ve had the best kind of theatre experience money can buy. And this is precisely the point of George Bernard Shaw’s original story.
A poor flower seller, often impugned as a Mayfair Lady, is taken in by an arrogant academic who wants to prove that he can pass her off as a duchess; and having done so, he finds himself in love with her. Her innate worth, which stood in question, is proven by the fact that she is loved best by the arrogant academic who knows her best.
Reg Livermore’s delivery of Henry Higgins’s one-liners was fine. Well-timed, and responsive to the audience, the performance bore all the hallmarks of a seasoned performer. It did lack, however, a fundamental understanding of the character. It was obvious that this was not Livermore’s ill, as the same could be said for Dolittle, Pickering, and perhaps, even Eliza. It would seem that neither producer nor director had bothered to scrape behind the surface of this deep, dark comedy. Opera Australia’s My Fair Lady was a superficial and entirely inadequate treatment of one of the most profound dramatic works to grace the Western Stage since Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
But who could blame Opera Australia? A high-brow institution without audiences seeking to generate cashflow by staging a popular musical. This was not an artistic endeavour so much as it was an exercise in marketing. And a very successful one. Every performance in Canberra was sold out, despite the exhorbitant ticket prices and the presence of a much more intelligent show literally next door in the Courtyard Studio.
Opera Australia have taken a shabby production, neglecting its more fundamental value, dressed it up in a spectacular fashion, and have charged us a fortune to see it. Just like Henry Higgins, they have taken something they assume to be worthless, they have added a superficial gloss, and have found it to be of value. And just like Higgins, they still misunderstand its innate worth. The irony is delicious. And devastating.
I am hoping for more from Canberra Repertory’s production of Pygmalion later this year. They have a much better chance of making their point, mainly because they’re not using a bastardised version of Shaw’s story.
There is also hope in the upcoming new film of My Fair Lady(scheduled for release in 2010), which is being penned by the very intelligent Emma Thomson and is intended to pay more respect to Shaw’s intentions.