Pygmalion is the one that myth made immortal. An artist so enraptured with his art that a goddess took pity on him and gave a sculpture life. Yet did anyone ask what Galatea thought of these proceedings?
Playwright Lawrence Aronovitch recasts the timeless story from a LGBT perspective in Galatea. Last seen in the Derry Playhouse in 2011, Sole Purpose Productions brings Galatea back for a Northern Irish tour starting in the MAC for Belfast Pride and ending back at the Playhouse in Derry~Londonderry
Harry and Georgie (Glen Tilley and Michaál Kerrigan) have been a couple for 30 years, ever since Georgie first modelled for artist Harry. They aren’t always happy, but they are settled. Until, that is, 21 year old Eli Cross struts into their shared life, with his boyfriend Freddie (Damian Friel and Alex Wilson) slouching along behind him. Through a series of encounters, both open and covert, and conversations all four protagonists end up mirrors to each other.
The worldly, cultured Harry – consciously casting himself as Pygmalion to the rough-edged Eli – is confident that he is the one to shape the narrative of their lives. For a while it seems he is right, as Eli hungrily seeks his approval and Freddie bristles and barks his resentment. Meanwhile Georgie plays Cassandra, mouthing biting prophecies of doom with no expectation anyone will listen to him.
Yet are Harry and Georgie the voice of experience, or are they just jaded? While Eli, and even Freddie, are willing to take the older couple’s advice (symbolised by Eli actually taking things), they baulk at re-enacting their lives. And as they disrupt the routine of Harry and Georgie’s lives, it turns out that they have a wisdom of their own.
Galatea doesn’t shy away from many topics, touching on questions of ‘love, loyalty, infidelity, marriage, class and art.’. To me it seemed there was also a political element knit into the fabric of the play, dealing with questions of ownership and focus. In any multi-generational cause – certainly it is something that has occurred in the various waves of feminism – there are always questions of who decides where to go next.
Both couples see the other as privileged. Harry points out that for most of his relationship it was ‘barely legal for them to live together’, but Freddie sees them as having an easy life in a big house. Georgie bristles at being dubbed ‘queer’, while Eli, and to a lesser extent Freddie, are unnerved by Georgie’s defiant flamboyance. Neither is willing to recognise the other’s potential to contribute at first.
Aronovitz picks out the generational gaps – that so gall Harry – and blind spots with a sure hand and a nice ear for a bit well-turned sarcasm. There were a few spots where the dialogue was slightly repetitive, the sort of thing that is actually true to conversational patterns but doesn’t translate well to the stage. On the whole, however, the play is well-written and clever in subtle ways.
Wilson’s Freddie is particularly, surprisingly, effective. Hooded and sullen on first meeting and seething with jealousy later, he seemed an easily predicted character. The evolution of his friendship with Georgie was unexpected, but convincing as it played out on stage. He was also front and centre in one of the play’s most viscerally effective scenes: a fight with Eli about Harry’s influence on them. The sheer physicality of the scene, with the actors squaring off toe to toe, was a powerful contrast to the weary, habitual arguments between Harry and Georgie.
Friel is also excellent throughout, capturing both the roughness and cheeky charm of the unpolished Eli. There was an emotional honesty to his portrayal that was convincing, particularly when combined with his open, expressive face.
Director Patricia Byrne does a good job in directing the physical side of the production, shepherding her actors on, off and around the sparsely set stage with confidence. She has a good eye for the subtleties of body language, helping the actors catch the distinct intimacy of each relationship. Harry is attentive with Eli, but with Georgie rarely focuses on their conversations. Meanwhile Freddie is patient and awkwardly charming with the brittle Georgie, but challenging in his interactions with Eli.
It would perhaps have benefited Kerrigan to get a little more directorial direction on playing Georgie from Byrne at points. Of the four actors he seemed the most nervous as the curtain lifted, paying more attention to the audience than his cast mates. As the play unfolded, however, he relaxed into the role, particularly in the scenes where Georgie was more introspective.
In fairness to him, it is a role that does requires a level of visible performance. The actor shouldn’t appear entirely comfortable in Georgie’s skin, because Georgie isn’t comfortable there. His life for the last 30 years has been a performative one, the ‘housewife’ to Harry’s domestically incompetent artist. A performance symbolised by the flapping, wrapping blue silk robe he doffs only for scenes where you glimpse the thoughtful, story-telling Georgie
Galatea is a powerful, thoughtful piece of theatre and Friel and Wilson are promising young actors. A great addition to the Belfast Pride line-up.
Galatea can be see at The Courtyard Theatre on August 18, the Alley Theatre on August 21 and the Playhouse Theatre in Derry~Londonderry on the 23-24 August. See below for details.