As far as modernisations of classical mythology go, Educating Rita is a valiant effort. It has the pathos of Ovid’s tale, the wit of Shaw’s, and it’s nicely focused on the essential characters, so it almost works as a parable. To date, though, I’ve not seen a production that quite lives up to the ideal I suspect Willy Russell hoped for.
Maybe it was the timing. Written in 1980, Educating Rita sits at the very tail end of Britain’s kitchen sink era, where the profound was muted by reality.
Well, that’s certainly what HIT Productions have here. Though some of the books are clearly painted on the walls, we are in all other senses transported to a rather ordinary office in a rather ordinary institution, in a rather ordinary part of the British Isles, and presented with an extremely ordinary professor of literature. A rather ordinary woman walks through the door, and is gradually transformed into an extraordinary one, while the professor proceeds down a path of self-loathing that apparently leads to Australia.
While I might not be especially enamoured of Russell’s treatment of Ovid’s ancient myth, I nonetheless find it interesting, and it is made moreso in this instance by two brilliantly-talented actors. Colin Moody leaves no room to doubt Frank’s sad reality, and Francesca Bianchi is likewise entirely convincing as Rita. Their see-saw-like transitions through the play are presented with verisimilitude and they build into a brilliantly balanced crescendo.
Regardless of the flaws I see in the script, this is certainly an excellent production of it. It shows a strong commitment to character development on the part of director, Denny Lawrence.
In my wild, erratic fancy, I imagine a production of Educating Rita staged as Greek tragedy, with Frank as a rather sodden Plato, and Rita his Aristotle. The set an olive grove or agora, and among the poets they discuss, Ovid, just for the irony. But can I be bothered? Probably not. I don’t think this tale, as Russell has portrayed it, quite does justice to Ovid’s Pygmalion the way Shaw did. And so, maybe I’ll leave that idea for one of Russell’s true believers.