Archive for June 7th, 2018

Review – Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Donmar Warehouse

June 7, 2018

Take a great novel with rich characters, build it out with outstanding actresses, and then season it with glorious set and sound design – the use of bells both as scenery and as a source of music was just inspired, and I can’t say enough about the final look of the wall covered with flowers, reeking of funerals, hospitals, and the beautiful garden of the mind Miss Brodie (Lia Williams) created for herself and her students, in which she dies, alone. Aaaaahhhh beautiful artistic perfection. And let’s not forget her gowns and hair (Lizzie Clachan), so strongly capturing an era and embodying a personality. MMMMMMmmmmm. What praise can I not lavish on this superlative production?

The play is far easier to follow than the original novel, with its dreamlike, backward and forward (sometimes jarringly far forward) narrative; and while purists might find this a fault, I felt the solid framing device of “the person interviewing a writer” while the writer (Rona Morrison as Sandy Stranger) has flashbacks settled my brain better, giving me the visual cues I needed to keep back story and forward/present story clear. The five actresses playing a classroom of 10 year old girls had me reaching for the program, convinced they were not one over 18; Nicola Coughlan (as Joyce Emily) has a particular fragility I associate with girls around 13 and was both heartbreaking (in the junior school scenes) and fascinating (as a sulky teenager) – but completely believable overall. The rest of the “Brodie Set” slowly brought their personalities to the fore, but most of them aren’t meant to be key players, although they still are lively and make the stage glow.

The beaming sun, though, is Miss Brodie herself, whom Lia Williams inhabits with a vitality that transcends acting and settles firmly into the world of “being.” I, at fifty, felt the fragility behind the energy of Brodie; she is in her prime, she is made 85% of will and 15% of style but, my God, how clear it is that her prime is a position she cannot inhabit long. The men (Edward McLiam as Mr Lloyd and Angus Wright as Mr Lowther, both hugely frustrated throughout) swarm about her like bees, but it is she who will not make it past her summer, not the drones; and the casual spinning and unpicking of the wonderful life she has made with herself at the center comes apart in a way that seems both inevitable and still entirely heartbreaking, almost like a spider eaten by her children.

But it’s not that tragic. No, the tragedy is that Miss Brodie is a character that is not saintly but flawed, human, and navigating a peculiar world with rules we of this modern age are unbound by; we can divorce, we do not have to quit work when we marry, and we can walk home by ourselves at 11 without questions being asked. She feels she cannot. Added to this is her injected flaw of supporting fascism; I see this as Spark’s way of showing that Brodie “may be on the wrong side,” as the original novel was written long after the correct people to support in the case of World War Two had been well settled. It, I think, too consciously sets us (as the reader/audience) against her, though reading other literature written at the time it’s clear that there was a bit more debate about it going on than we have now.

But we can still dedicate ourselves selflessly, and perhaps senselessly, to people we care about, and Brodie’s desire to see her girls flourish is hard not to cheer even if her ways of seeing this through are not necessarily in the best interest in girls of 16, or even women of 22. We are caught in both wanting her stopped and wanting her to carry on, with teaching about art, and music, and life; so we too are ultimately complicit in her betrayal. And ooooohhhh how lusciously it all plays out. At nearly a three hour running time, I was convinced I’d only been in the theater for 2:15 at the most, despite knowing the interval was over at 9PM. And that, lads and lasses, is what I would call a successful night at the theater – emotionally satisfying and utterly involving.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 6, 2018. It continues though July 28. New tickets are released on the Donmar’s website on Mondays at noon.)

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