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This review will consider the third play in the Talking Gods series, Pygmalion, written and directed by Ross McGregor and produced by Chris Tester.
Notwithstanding my confusion about Pygmalion being included in this series as a titular character, given that he is not an Ancient Greek god, despite his dealings with Aphrodite, I was very eager to watch this play. I must admit that the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea is one of my personal favourites, and so the thought of an entire play dedicated to Pygmalion was quite exciting… I was disappointed.
Considering how utterly repetitive and monotonous this performance is, my notes on this particular performance are very few and equally as repetitious, but I shall start by saying bluntly that if I had not been asked to review this performance, I would have closed the video and turned my computer off way before the halfway mark. Put even more directly, this is a truly lifeless, unenergised and, frankly, boring play. Yet, its fundamental concept is so frustratingly clever.
The notion of Pygmalion (Edward Spence) as a video game designer whose creation comes to life, I thought, was a very smart and even somewhat original way of retelling this myth with a modern tongue. A video game! The imaginative possibilities that that opens up for, and the sombre understanding throughout that, at some point, the game will have to be turned off and Galatea (Gabrielle Nellis-Pain) will be killed in the process; it is definitely a very good premise, even if a little deviate from the original myth. Its execution, however, is incredibly poor, hence my aforementioned frustration.
We are first presented with an acerbic and self-important Pygmalion locked in the dark of his room, refusing calls, not wanting to go to the door, even for his own food delivery, with his only interaction being with a virtual assistant. This is a good start, despite the lack of richness in the actual text here. But then, we have the introduction of Emily (also Nellis-Pain) and Aphrodite (Benjamin Garrison). Shown running alongside Pygmalion in some superimposed footage, our initial introduction to Emily’s character would not have been so particularly weak in itself, if she became more integral to the text and plot later on. Instead, we are presented with similar cutaways that see the two interacting with one another, the memories they share, etc. But there’s absolutely nothing to contextualise this footage, no mention of her until the very end, no explanation as to who she is, and no apparent effect on Pygmalion other than a forlorn look of pain and despair. Her character is completely dispensable, not to mention subtractive from Pygmalion’s growing love for Galatea.
As an audience, we can obviously work out that she is a past lover, a painful memory; this is not the issue. The issue is that if we are going to be so heavily bombarded with her image, with her character, we need a reason to care. Pygmalion is already a rather depressing character, with his nonchalant sarcasm and aloof demeanour, so why would we even care for him, let alone his lover?!
In fact, this lack of personality has the same effect at the end, when his condition is revealed. The revelation that Pygmalion has been suffering from ALI not only feels like an overly specific sob-story afterthought, but we simply do not care. Why would we? What is there in the text — and not in the concepts behind it — that invoke empathy in us? Nothing.
The inclusion of other characters and the reasoning behind this seem to be a recurring problem in this text, from this underrepresented character of Emily to the inclusion of Aphrodite, whose eyes are the only feature we see, and to the fleeting characters of the video game — although, I should note that this latter, alone, is not an issue but becomes one in combination with this theme. His reason for visiting Aphrodite in the first place? We do not even know. Aphrodite’s reasoning for creating Galatea? We are not informed. These are crucial elements of the plot that need to be presented and should not remain subtextual, hoping for the audience to sedulously piece everything together in their own time.
Especially frustrating is the fact that the character of Galatea, the most important element of this myth, has such a low significance in this play. Not only is she created by accident, she is a virus that Pygmalion wishes to get rid of. This could make for an interesting context — and I believe this might have been the intention, in fact — for an ‘unfeeling’ Pygmalion to develop a love for something that is first a hindrance and source of distress, a good premise to see him come out of his shell and learn to love again in the face of suffering, as it were. However, he simply spends the entire performance having flashbacks of a woman we do not know and being infuriated with Galatea. He knows that to get her out of the game and out of his hair, the game needs to be played — which is confusing for me, seeing as the game is not finished yet, but somehow Pygmalion knows what is on the next level, and the game is still worked-out and completable — and yet he displays such a great disinterest in helping her get through it. Surely, he would not want to waste time trying to pretend she does not exist? Yet, suddenly, over halfway into the performance, after one singular in-game fight, which lasts a matter of seconds, he is head-over-heels in love with her. Where is the development? And then, after begging Aphrodite to give her back after her deletion, he simply forgets about her, and Emily, and moves on to another woman, Ariadne (Lucy Ioannou). So, what are his true objectives, his desires, his feelings? And, more importantly, what is the actual point of this play? I simply cannot understand these decisions.
Furthermore, Pygmalion’s recurring baseline behavioural pattern is simply exhausting for an audience member when repeated so often as it is: distant and bitter; then excited and invested; and then dismissive, regaining his composure with a “Huh?” or an “Oh. Well. Yes.” or a similar utterance and acting as though he was never interested in the first place. The character development here — or lack thereof — is simply shocking.
Moments where we should be given more information — like more clues as to what Aphrodite is actually saying on the telephone — are completely lacking and, conversely, under-informative, and moments where we ought to have less information — like the entire repetitious montage from 49:00 or any of those including Emily — are simply far too overcooked and wrongly become essential elements of the play.
Enough about the shambolic text, and on to acting. Spence’s performance is adequate, considering the insipid role he has been given. For the most part, especially in the footage he shares with Nellis-Pain, he is credible and expressive. A good performance. As for Nellis-Pain herself, again, a good performance, but her inability to portray fear in a credible fashion [when Pygmalion faints] is rather irksome.
Garrison’s delivery is far too slow, and I understand that this is most likely a directorial decision, but it is simply exhausting to listen to, particularly given that Aphrodite’s monotonous sarcasm and sassiness were written far too dryly and without humour. There is an incredible amount of expressivity available in the human eyes alone, and so I was frustrated to see hardly anything come from Garrison’s.
As for Richard Baker’s performance, I had not even checked the cast list yet but could instantly tell that he was providing the voices of additional characters…and this sums it up, really. I am honestly shocked at the sheer absence of transformativity here. Whilst Baker’s chosen dialect or enunciation generally change from voice to voice, his baseline tone and pitch remain exactly the same, meaning that voices simply sound like the same character who has but aged or taken up a daily smoke. Raspiness and the addition of idiomatic phrases and vernacular terminology do not constitute alone a change in voice or persona. This needs to be addressed.
Unfortunately, whilst performers were adequate, and whilst the added theatrical elements of lighting and sound really added a layer of intrigue to otherwise bland scenes, this was not enough to pull this text up and out of its murky depths. Its content is lacking and far too repetitive; it is clear that no real thought has been given to character and plot; and there is a frustrating over-reliance upon elements that have such little bearing on the text — again, like the footage of Emily. A few recurring allusions to his past experience of love with her, culminating in ONE montage at the end, would have been enough to ground her character in the text in a structured and, above all, effective and feeling manner. As it stands, her significance is nonexistent until the end — if anyone makes it that far.
This dramatic text requires a heavy amount of editing. In fact, the entire play could have been cut down to a length of forty minutes — maximum. The story is simply not elaborate enough to last nearly two hours[!].