The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse
“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” With that ominous mantra in mind, Miss Jean Brodie welcomes another group to her inner circle, a high honour only bestowed onto Marcia Blaine School for Girls’ best, brightest and most malleable. And while David Harrower’s new adaptation of Muriel Spark’s landmark novel, here directed by Polly Findlay, may not quite make that grade, it boasts a year-highlight central performance from Lia Williams.
Harrower has morphed Spark’s floating flash forward structure – one that imbues the wide-eyed curiosity of childhood with the revealing weight of hindsight – into a framing device involving an ever-present journalist (Kit Young) and nun-in-training former Brodie student Sandy (an excellent Rona Morrison). These scenes always feel a bit stiff, even if Findlay’s overlaying of convent and school produces some nice ripples through (personal) history.
The choice to so singularly focus on Sandy over the other members of Brodie’s set, meanwhile, somewhat robs the play of the piercing shifts in perspective and perception found in the novel. It also leaves a lot of the heavy lifting regarding the changing image of Miss Brodie down to Williams. Lucky, then, that the actress is one of the finest thespians around.
From the moment she steps on stage, an otherworldly splash of red in Lizzie Clachan’s grey prison of a school, she is never anything less than spellbinding. Imperious but anxious, her proclamations on art, education and everything else accompanied by a slight tremor, Williams’s performance embraces every contradiction found in the tempestuous teacher.
In a breathy Scottish accent, Brodie imposes loyalty on her girls, treating them as adults in terms of topics discussed but denying them the autonomy to form their own opinions. Her veneer of sophistication is betrayed by her desperate over-reliance on a group of teenagers; her sincere hopes for their futures are compromised by manipulation and a need to live vicariously through those pupils that leave and rarely come back. The tragedy of her lonely end is tempered by the dangerous fascism of her worldview.
Though the script itself isn’t quite as ambiguous as its source material, Williams does an incredible job of gradually unravelling Brodie. By the time Sandy stops seeing her as an infallible inspiration and starts seeing her as a messy, unfulfilled woman in her own right, the teacher has become a figure of pity, far removed from the regal alien that first stepped into the classroom all those years ago.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is at the Donmar Warehouse from 4th June until 28th July 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.