Shaw was perplexed by the success of Pygmalion, first seen in London in 1914. "There must be something radically wrong with the play if it pleases everybody," he wrote, "but at the moment I cannot find what it is."
It is easy to see why this has become the best-loved of all his works. The story of a Covent Garden flower-girl being transformed into a glittering social success has a fairy-tale quality that audiences cannot fail to respond to.
Shaw's wit and good humour are at their most engaging in this play, his analysis of language and class characteristically acute, and there is little of the wilful perversity that so often mars his drama. Nor is there a single moment when you find yourself wearily wishing that the characters would put a sock into their ceaseless flow of Shavian chatter, a depressingly familiar experience in too many of his plays.
For once the major characters seem like flesh-and-blood creations, and the comedy has a surprising depth of emotion. Shaw's infatuation with the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, who was to play Eliza, clearly found its way into the script, giving Pygmalion a powerful undercurrent of sexuality, despite all the playwright's blustering attempts to deny it.
Howard Davies's superb new staging at the National's Olivier Theatre does the play proud. In run-of-the-mill performances you often find yourself lamenting the absence of Lerner and Loewe's songs from My Fair Lady, but in this detailed, absorbing production, Shaw's verbal music is enough.
The final text of Pygmalion is a hybrid of the stage play and the later film. Shaw incorporated descriptive passages and additional dialogue from the movie, while admitting that they would be technically possible only "on stages furnished with exceptionally elaborate machinery."
The Olivier, of course, is blessed with just such equipment. With the help of the theatre's drum-revolve and back projections, we are able to watch Eliza ride through London in a taxi to her slum in Drury Lane, cut with cinematic fluency to the hilarious scene in which the housekeeper Mrs Pearce forces her whimpering charge to take a bath for the first time, and enjoy the full splendour of the embassy ball, complete with marble staircases and palm court orchestra.
William Dudley's sets are magnificent, but there is no feeling here of empty spectacle. Throughout Davies is responsive to the humour, the provocative argument and the emotion of the piece, and there are outstanding performances in the leading roles.
Frances Barber hilariously and touchingly charts Eliza's progress from squawking indignation to assured self-confidence. In the early scenes she sometimes seems less like a human than a terrified wild animal, and she is in extraordinary form in her first public appearance at Mrs Higgins's tea party, moving with the stiffness of an automaton and speaking in a voice that sounds like a Martian after a course at the Berlitz. Her wonderful speech about the death of an aunt ("It's my belief they done the old woman in") is as blissfully funny as anything on the London stage. There is real passion and pain in her bruising confrontation with Higgins after the embassy ball, and Alan Howard provides an equally fine performance as the irascible phonetician. He leaves the audience in no doubt of the character's heartless egotism and yet you find yourself warming to his sheer vitality.
But Howard's performance also suggests that Higgins is an emotional cripple. Whenever the subject of sex comes up ("that thing", as he puts it), he becomes painfully embarrassed, while in the presence of his mother he behaves like a gangling schoolboy.
This fine psychological portrait becomes especially poignant in the final scene, in which Eliza declares her affection for him and he, though deeply moved, is incapable of responding. The playing is so fine here that the notoriously "unsatisfactory" ending makes complete sense. For once, you don't want Eliza to settle down with Higgins - she has achieved an emotional maturity he will never be able to match.
There is plenty of excellent support. Michael Bryant is in characteristic scene-stealing form as that "original moralist" Alfred Doolittle, and Gillian Barge enjoys some wonderful put-downs of her son as Mrs Higgins.
Alison Fiske plays the housekeeper Mrs Pearce like the brisk and plummy matron of an exclusive girls' boarding school, while Robin Bailey offers continuous delight as a ripe and fruity Col Pickering, finding humour in even the most unpromising lines.
It is hard to imagine a finer production of Shaw's most enjoyable play, and it is surely destined to become one of the National Theatre's greatest successes.
Daily Telegraph, 13.4.92.