The SHAW Festival – of Pygmalion, and the Prince of Wales

The art of the accent!

The theatrical smorgasbord that is the SHAW festival continues this summer in the historic town of Niagara on the Lake. The next performance we saw during our July visit was the SHAW version of Pygmalion. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw’s most iconic and popular play, we attended the talk beforehand which gave some explanation to the modern twist on the story taken by this production.


Things are looking rosy!

In days gone by, your accent very much determined your class and accentism which judges someone by how they speak although less prevalent today, is still alive and well. Pygmalion is very much a social commentary on that fact. How you speak showed where you came from, what you did (or didn’t do) and very often how much money you had. Received pronunciation (RP) is the only accent in the UK that is linked to class and education and not to geography. Class we are told is more fluid today and yet we have less social mobility in the UK than in many previous decades. Shaw’s play masks – in what he ironically called a ‘romantic comedy’ – his rather scathing observations on the reality of what these divisions meant for people at the time he was writing.


You say Gazebo..

Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech. The play is a sharp lampoon of the rigid British class system of the day and a commentary on women’s independence.


Professor Higgins makes a point


The Shaw festival prides itself on the accents of its talented ensemble and I have to say that by and large they are pretty good at them, as English accents can be tricky (even for the English!) In this production, set more in the modern day with an Asian Eliza Dolittle ( Harveen Sandhu) – Eliza has abandoned the straight cockney accent for something dubbed Multicultural London English. London is indeed a melting pot of cultures and accents today but I’m pretty sure that true blue cockneys aren’t quite yet extinct (Eastenders has quite a few) and our Eliza’s wandering vowels emerged as an accent I’m not quite sure actually exists right now.

Coffee and cake at Balzacs

That aside, the production has a fabulous set (as always) and I very much enjoyed the performance of Patrick McManus as Professor Higgins with his autistic thirst for knowledge and school boy enthusiasm superceding any trace of emotional literacy whatsoever. I liked the use of video and multi media which gave it a modern twist and the costumes are to die for as always.


Do you speak with a plummy accent?

Talking of having a plum in your mouth Niagara has a plethora of mouth watering plums piled up at the side of the road at this time of year and just as mouth watering was our delightful afternoon tea at the grand Prince of Wales Hotel in the middle of town, just a stone’s throw from the Shaw Festival Theatre. The hotel was named in honour of the son of Edward V who visited on his Canadian tour in 1901 (later to abdicate the throne as Edward VIII.) The luxurious late Victorian splendour has been carefully retained and any fans of Downton Abbey will be in seventh heaven.

Tea Pot stand off
The service (as is the norm in North America, although its takes some getting used to for us Brits) is exceptional and the sandwiches, warm lavender raisin scones and soft baby lemon meringues were delicious. My Blood Orange Oolong tea was fragrant and hot served in a beautiful old tea service and we topped it off with a spot of sparkling champagne as you do whenever the chance is presented.


Is it time for tea?

Niagara-on-the-Lake teems with historical plaques, and is also a designated National Historic Site of Canada. Its accolades include the province’s first newspaper, lending library, parliament, historical museum, and governing body for the legal profession. As well as important battles, the town also gave many black Americans their first taste of freedom, both as a stop on the so called ‘underground railroad’  for those travelling further into Upper Canada, and as a refuge in its own right. (The Underground Railroad, was a vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and to Canada.)

Lake shore cycling
The main street is awash with Regency and Classical Revival buildings, considered the best in the country and it is really like stepping back in time in a very good way. Afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales followed by an evening with a delightful thespian creation from the Shaw festival – what’s not to like?


Arrange your Hydrangeas