The new Eliza captivates in West End’s latest run of My Fair Lady; women’s photobooks highlighted at Kraszna-Krausz Photography Awards; dangerous women dominate British Museum’s exhibition on feminine power; After The Rain to go on display at photobook exhibition.

My Fair Lady at the West End: Smashing, positively dashing

My Fair Lady, currently on show at the London Coliseum, is the first major West End revival of Lerner and Loewe’s musical for 21 years. We attended the show with two questions in mind:

  • Is the new Eliza Doolittle played by Amara Okereke, the first Eliza of BAME background, any different than the previous Elizas?
  • Will the 2022 show have the flower girl Eliza Doolittle picking up Professor Henry Higgins’s slippers in the end? That is the ending of the 1956 musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, based on a much less romantic 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw.

My Fair Lady is a classic singalong, so there isn’t much room to manoeuvre in terms of the songs. Remember, Shaw, the playwright of Pygmalion, is also “exacting” (to borrow Higgins’s word) and doesn’t give us a lot of room for manoeuvring in the interpretation of his comedy. It’s not a romance, he insisted. Whilst he was alive, he didn’t want it to be made into a musical.

A new kind of Eliza

The musical begins with a dishevelled Eliza scanning us, the audience, in defiance. Head on, she takes on the male gaze as well as the society’s judgemental gaze. The Eliza who is embodied by Okereke, we think, is feeling the triple whammy of prejudices levelled against a black, working-class woman of a disadvantaged background. ‘I know how you perceive me,’ she signals and walks away.

The 2022 Eliza delivers a more throaty, bolder performance. The 1964 Eliza is exasperated by society. The 2022 Eliza is incensed, furious. We wonder how an Asian – in particular, a Southern South Asian or a Southeast Asian Eliza, the most dark-skinned and objectified of the Asian female segments in terms of body privileging – would deliver that straining high-pitched piece, Without You. Someone will have the guts to sing it, for sure. It won’t be long now.

Amara Okereke and the “Loverly” ensemble steal our hearts and bring tears to our eyes with a wonderful rendition of Wouldn’t It Be Loverly. Okereke’s Eliza Doolittle takes us to the present time and reminds us that working-class women of all backgrounds take turn to experience her predicament. Image source: © ENO / Marc Brenner

The musical ends with Eliza walking into the audience and out of our sight – a violation of the line that separates us in the real world and the world of make belief. Again, Eliza crosses the line. She will not have her life dictated to her. This is an interpretation of the musical closest to the spirit of Shaw’s Pygmalion. We mention this because the ending of Pygmalion has been the topic of many literary discussions, especially where romance is concerned. Shaw insists it isn’t a romance. The audience thinks it should be.

My Fair Lady is a romance; women’s suffrage isn’t

Shaw had the play staged in 1913, at the height of the suffragette movement. A suffragette threw herself in front of a group of horses as a protest at the 1913 Epsom Derby, killing herself in the process. This isn’t mentioned in Pygmalion but the horse race is one of the dominant scenes in My Fair Lady. The significance of the Ascot Gavotte scene in the musical isn’t lost on us. You can marvel at the hats and dresses, and at the same time, feel the chill down your feminist spine as you recall the 1913 incident.

The Ascot Gavotte scene captures the splendour of the upper crust, and the weaponisation of culture and habitus designed to induce crippling social anxiety in those whom the privileged want to control. Image source: © ENO / Marc Brenner

Of course, the musical is the ameliorated version of the hard-hitting play. No Emily Davison dies in this musical. Only Eliza’s character is up for assassination. Perhaps, due to time constraint more than censorship, the line where Higgins implies that Eliza is good enough to be “a King’s consort”, to her dismay, is scrapped. Maybe it’s a bit too close to the bone, given what we had to witness with regards to Lady Diana Spencer and Miss Meghan Markle. Director Bartlett Sher asks us, or at least those familiar with this musical and Shaw’s play, to work this out ourselves.

Eliza treads carefully at the horse race, fearful of being tripped up by her accent and demeanour. Image source: © ENO / Marc Brenner

Of course, the musical is the ameliorated version of the hard-hitting play. No Emily Davison dies in this musical. Only Eliza’s character is up for assassination.

Middle-class morality

There are many heart-stealing moments. Two of our favourites are the soliloquy of Eliza’s father, Alfred, on the “middle-class morality”, and the toe-tapping piece, Get Me to The Church on Time, a theme that we hear resonating again in David Bowie’s hit, Modern Love (“church on time, terrifies me”). Long before Bourdieu snitched about his peers’ obsession with class and habitus in his opus, Distinction, Shaw revealed his disdain towards his own ilk, the moralising middle-class who is neither aristocracy nor working class, in Pygmalion.

My Fair Lady isn’t reinventing the wheel created by George Bernard Shaw. But the beauty of this musical book by Lerner and Loewe is that it is down to us, the audience, to re-interpret and re-contextualise the flower girl and the Lady Creature whom Pygmalion – in the guise of Higgins – creates.

The refined Eliza is a wager made between Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Patton) and Colonel Hugh Pickering (Malcolm Sinclair). Image source: © ENO / Marc Brenner

This is a play that has launched a thousand inspirations, not least an artificial intelligence experiment by an MIT scientist. To the bold producers and the English National Opera (ENO) who bring us this production so soon after the pandemic lockdowns ended, we chorus our approval: “Bravo, bravo, bravo”.

More on My Fair Lady

Book on women’s photobooks wins Kraszna-Krausz award

A book chronicling the history of photobooks created by women has emerged as the winner of the 2022 Kraszna-Krausz Photography Award.

What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843-1999 tells of photobooks created by women from diverse backgrounds. It also addresses the glaring gaps and omissions in current photobook history, the lack of access, support and funding for non-Western women and women of colour.

What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843-1999 addresses the glaring gaps and omissions in current photobook history on the involvement and significance of female photographers. Image source: Kraszna-KrauszBook Awards

The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné 1963-1965 has been announced as the winner of the 2022 Moving Image Book Award. It is about Warhol’s film works from the years 1963 to 1965 during a time where the renowned artist produced hundreds of film and video works.

About the Kraszna-Krausz Photography Awards

The Kraszna-Krausz Book Awards, first established in 1985, are open to all moving image and photography books published in the previous year and available in the UK. This year, 230 entries from both categories were considered.

About the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation

The Kraszna-Krausz Foundation was created in 1985 by Andor Kraszna-Krausz, the founder of Focal Press. Since 1985, the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation Book Awards have been the UK’s leading prizes for books on photography and the moving image.

The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné 1963-1965 is about Warhol’s film works from the years 1963 to 1965. Image source: Kraszna-KrauszBook Awards

Wild women do: Feminine power at the British Museum

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic has a potential to be a bigger event. More thought-provoking. But we imagine, this is the best the curators could do given the budget and time provided to put together the show.

Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, the 1891 oil painting by John William Waterhouse, is the main showcase of the witchcraft section of the Feminine power exhibition. Image source: Wikipedia

The exhibition occupies a prominent space in the British Museum: one of the upper floors of the Great Court gallery. In it, you see a collection of cross-cultural exhibits of notable feminine icons and goddesses from around the world in the shape of statues, masks, paintings and so on.

When you look at icons such as like Guanyin (or Avalokiteshvara) and Ishtar, you’d realise that some deities are celebrated in both their male and female forms. The notion of gender and femininity had been more fluid and broader in the past.

It does feel like a show for a school trip. We’ve seen more impressive exhibitions at the museum, even at a smaller scale. This is no criticism, however. This show feels like the opening chapter that could lead to a great follow-up chapter. Like a Part Two of the Feminine power exhibition.

This show feels like the opening chapter that could lead to a great follow-up chapter. Like a Part Two of the Feminine power exhibition.

If they choose to follow the steps of the 2019 Manga exhibition, and perhaps even consider the MCM Comic Con’s style of curation, you can see Part Two being expanded to focus on demons (or demonised women) and superhero women in popular culture. If the museum collaborates with the book-to-screen literary camps, the section on the objects of witchcraft and witches would make a compelling show.

Black magic women

We’re quite pleased to see the mask of Rangda, the Balinese incarnation of female wrath – exhibited next to the objects of Kali – the angry manifestation of the Durga.

Glad to meet you. The mask of Rangda, the wrathful spirit of a Javanese Dowager Queen, is on display at the show. Like Kali and some deities featured at the exhibition, Rangda is summoned during religious rituals to possess devotees. Image: Story Of Books / artefact of the British Museum

In 2018, our Creative Director wrote a piece on the ngeruk trance ceremony in Bali in which we witnessed devotees stabbing themselves with keris as an act of devotion. The spirit of Rangda – yes, the vengeful lady whose mask is now exhibited at Feminine power – possessed them to stab themselves. In response, the spirit of the Barong, the revered bear, possessed their bodies – and somehow the knives didn’t penetrate their skins. Was it witchcraft? Yes. Maybe more serious than that. Was it real? Yes, we saw it with our own eyes. Check out the photos if you have doubts.

In 2018, we witnessed devotees at a ngeruk ritual in Bali stabbed themselves after being possessed by Rangda, said to be a wrathful spirit of a Javanese Dowager Queen. Rangda’s mask is on display at the Feminine power exhibition at the British Museum. Image source: ©Zarina Holmes Photography

We mention this ngeruk ritual because at the Feminine power show, we saw some serious witchcraft objects lined up together in one room. Strong stuff. Well, one part of this witchcraft section was curated by witches from the UK anyway, as acknowledged by the museum.

Feminine power might be a bit tame for us, but we also feel that this exhibition can be a precursor to something stronger and more profound. Go on, British Museum. Yank it up a notch.

More on Feminine power: the divine to the demonic

As usual, the British Museum publishes a comprehensive guide of the Feminine power show at a reasonable £25 price tag. Image: Story Of Books

After The Rain to be displayed at Zontiga

Our publication, After The Rain, will be featured at a photo bookstore in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a prominent Malaysian photobook exhibition in conjunction with the country’s Independence Day and Malaysia Day celebrations.

Both Number 1 and Number 2 will be on display at Zontiga for public browsing throughout September 2022. Both editions were published three years apart between 2019 and 2022 – no thanks to the pandemic.

Our Creative Director and author of After The Rain with the hard copies of Number 1 and 2. Both editions will be on display as part of an exhibition at the Zontiga bookstore in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image: ©Story Of Books

Whilst Number 1 focuses on the nostalgia of a rustic seaside life, Number 2 asks us to look at the recent environmental calamity and the consequences of the choices we make as humans. Number 2 also reflects not just on our seaside hometown of Lumut, Malaysia, but also on our adopted home, the Thames riverside of London.

In March 2022, our Creative Director gave a talk at Exposure+ Photo on the magazine and how the photography process also informs the design of sustainable products created by our parent company, GLUE Studio, the publisher of Story Of Books.

In March 2022, our Creative Director gave a talk on how After The Rain‘s photography process informs our studio’s prototyping method for sustainable product design. Image: ©Story Of Books

After The Rain is available on Blurb Books as hard copy and on Amazon as Kindle e-book.

More on After The Rain and GLUE Studio design shop