Having spent a week traveling through Wales and the north of England—up a castle, down a gold mine, and over to Port Sunlight, where Lux has its origins—I finally got to sit down again to take in an old-fashioned show. That show was My Fair Lady, a production of which opened last night at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where each summer a musical is put on for the amusement of the locals and the visitors to the seaside town a few miles east of which I now reside. These productions, the aforementioned Oliver!, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story among them, tend to be quite ambitious in their choice of Broadway and West End fare, titles likely to raise expectations higher than any theatrical curtain falling on them, whether to the relief or regret of the assembled crowds. The present Lady is no exception.
According to lore shared by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon in Broadway: The American Musical, even Oscar Hammerstein gave up on the idea of showtuning Shaw’s Pygmalion, advising fellow songwriter and radio alumnus Alan Jay Lerner against it. “Just You Wait,” the librettist thought and, to the delight of millions, he and his partner, Frederick Loewe, got on with the show that not only opened on Broadway in 1956 but refused to close for several seasons, proving an enduring popular and critical success.
Now, I did not expect a performer equal to Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn when I took my seat and glanced at the program. Indeed, I was never fond of the former or of the film version starring the latter. I had read in the local paper that two leading ladies were taking turns during the month-long run and that the show’s director, Michael Bogdanov, was yet to determine which one of them would perform on opening night. The Lady in question was Elin Llwyd, a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Sure, a Welsh lead for a part requiring a Cockney accent transformed into an English that would both please and fool high society as being the genuine article. I’m a far more “Ordinary Man” than Professor Higgins professes to be; but, having lived among the Welsh for some time now, I can tell a Cymru tongue from an English one when it is stuck out at me from a reverberating stage.
“The English have no respect for their language,” the Irish playwright (heard here introducing himself) deplored in his Preface to Pygmalion. Neither have theatrical directors, it seems; or, rather, they do not appear to have much respect for the ear by which they mean to drag audiences into the realm of make-believe. Mind you, the production is being coy about the filiations of Eliza, casting fellow Welshman Ieuan Rhys as her father and throwing in a few self-conscious references about the culture and language. Still, no matter how ably supported and otherwise capable, the slate-hewn Galatea taking center stage faces the well-nigh impossible task of faking not one accent, but two; and, as her acting became more energetic and engaging during the second act, Welsh got the better of the flower girl from the slums of Lisson Grove, London, whom a conceited gentleman scholar wagers to unveil as one of his kind by chiseling at her accent. “By George, she’s got it”? By David, she couldn’t get rid of it!
“Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!” A few years ago, I was incapable of discerning what now spoke so clearly against the effort to suspend my disbelief. I have spent most of my adult life being cast as a foreigner based on the sound of my utterings. Often, I was made to feel like an imposter, earmarked as one supposedly pretending to be American or English while invariably exposed by a slip of my wayward Teutonic tongue. Given my accentual trials, I am drawn to stories like Eliza Doolittle’s . . . or Elin Llwyd’s.
Patois may be less restricting and defining these days; but, for a play like Pygmalion or its tuneful remake to ring true, phonetic distinctions should not be leveled along with the social discriminations they beget. In this case, equal opportunity spells a missed one. Besides, it just ain’t fair to the memory of the vernacularly challenged ladies and lads whose speech was not equal to their ear.