An Australian Pygmalion
A Greek Australian tackles the character of the English rose
Currently playing at Walsh Bay is the Sydney Theatre Company's production of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, with Andrea Demetriades playing the famous role of Eliza Doolittle.
Directed by Peter Evans, this is a sleek new rendition of the classic story about a simple flower seller's transformation into a society lady. Initially, the whole thing came as something of a shock to Demetriades. She found herself suddenly and unexpectedly cast in the role after the original Eliza became pregnant. All the same, she has grasped the nettle, and seems to be enjoying the experience.
"I am having lots of fun" she says. "It is a great joy being able to perform Shaw's text, so funny, yet so brutal. Being on the Sydney Theatre Company stage is a wonderful achievement and I am very honoured to be working with such an amazing director and cast." For anyone who knows Pygmalion, a Greek actress may not be the most obvious choice for a part that is typically played by an English rose. Nevertheless, Demetriades feels that her casting is appropriate to this particular production.
"Not many directors would think of casting an Australian Greek Cypriot girl in a very Anglo play like Pygmalion. But we are proving that colour-blind casting is the way of the future. What we see on the streets in our very multicultural society is what we should be seeing on our televisions and on stages." While Pygmalion is usually performed on lavish sets with sumptuous costumes, Evans' version has stripped away the veneer, giving the audience a chance to concentrate on Shaw's exceptional dialogue, wit and insight.
This production brings the play into the present, a world obsessed with image, where celebrity burns brightly but briefly. "Pygmalion is always imagined as time and place specific: turn of the century London, hats, Edwardian affectations. Yet Peter Evans has set this version in a timeless space. The set is sparse and we only have a few pieces of furniture and minimalist props. In stripping away the trimmings, the text is amplified, focusing on the universal, contemporary and very relevant themes it explores."
Shaw named his drama after the Greek myth of the sculptor who falls in love with a statue he made. In the play, Professor Henry Higgins is a phoneticist, an expert on the local regional dialects of London. He bets his good friend Colonel Pickering that through voice training, he can transform a cockney girl into someone who will pass in polite society as being one of their own.
Eliza is that girl, picked at random off the street as the two men discuss their wager. She agrees to partake in their experiment and, of course, throughout her transformation, she and Higgins become increasingly drawn to each other. But in the process, she finds herself poised between two worlds, belonging to neither her past or present surroundings.
"Shaw was a socialist who believed that education is an integral tool in one's emancipation. I agree with this fervently. I also identify with the themes of otherness. Eliza feels as if she doesn't fit in any one world, and I think every human has felt that sense of dislocation in his or her lives at one time or another."
Demetriades studied at NIDA and is perhaps best known for her recent role of junior solicitor Lina Badir in Crownies which screened on the ABC last year. Her intelligent portrayal of a sensitive and pragmatic young Muslim lawyer in the milky white world of the Department of Public Prosecutions was a point for multiculturalism. Pygmalion on the other hand is the most English of plays, where the accents alone present an extraordinary challenge.
"At first I was quite terrified of the cockney accent. It was very important to me that I get it perfect as the whole play hinges on this and how Eliza learns how to speak like a lady. Also, as we were exploring a contemporary world as opposed to an Edwardian world, accents change over time, so we had to find one that was relevant to now."
Pygmalion's themes of identity and belonging resonate strongly in multicultural Australia, and Demetriades is as well qualified to appreciate this as anyone. Her father came to Perth from Cypress in the late 60s and it was there he met his wife, a Perth born Greek Australian. Her three older sisters have already seen Pygmalion, and her parents are looking forward to it.
"My Parents Athena and Costas have always been very supportive of my career choice. Of course they worry as every parent would. But they are always full of patience and good advice. And my beautiful yia yia Mary is also full of love and wisdom. I am blessed."
Pygmalion is on until 3 March at the Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay.
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