The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Donmar Warehouse

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Donmar Warehouse

While few would now agree that your schooldays are the best of your life, we would still admit to being shaped by our favourite teachers. Looking back, whether at primary or secondary level, the best classroom experiences came from discovering an aptitude for a particular subject or settling on a future career that the best teachers always encouraged, no matter how outlandish. Equally important as you grew up were the teachers who could communicate with you as individuals rather than another homogeneous set of pupils, whose intelligence, interest and enthusiasm would earn your respect. No wonder that drama has so frequently turned to the schoolroom for inspiration.

From Goodbye Mr Chips to Dangerous Minds on film, not to mention Carry on Teacher, to Rattigan’s The Browning Version and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys on stage, the teacher-student relationship is continually re-examined. While there has never been more pressure on modern teachers with strict curricula, endless testing and copious paperwork, fictional tutors are, for the most part, curiously free of such restrictions, able to use their unconventional methods to set their charges on the road to a brighter future. One of the most famous literary inventions of them all, is also the most controversial – is Jean Brodie a ‘progressive’ educator or a worrying menace to the mind of her ‘girls’.

A hundred years since the birth of novelist Muriel Spark, her 1961 tale The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been adapted for the Donmar Warehouse by Blackbird playwright David Harrower and directed by Polly Findlay. Page to stage adaptations can be perilous, truncating complex inner voices and motivations to fit the conventions of theatre that on the whole tends to work to a standard 2.5 hour run time, includes an interval at a suitable dramatic moment, and relies on certain expectations of conflict and resolution to propel the plot while sustaining audience attention – some theatre has moved away from this prescriptive approach, but most retains the format. All of this is the enemy of the novel, where authors have long experimented with flexible forms, shifting narratives and prolonged introspection that can seem flat and indulgent when transposed to a visual medium.

This is not the first time Spark’s book has been adapted and several theatrical versions have gone before. Yet, most people will know the 1969 film with Maggie Smith in the title role that allowed Brodie’s most famous phrases to enter the popular consciousness and become synonymous with her performance – to the point of caricature – right down the to genteel Edinburgh accent. This brings its own weight of expectation to Harrower’s new interpretation, with audience members coming anticipating a version of the novel, the film or both, with perhaps a clearly formed idea of how individuals and circumstances should be portrayed. How much viewers enjoy this may depend on their preparedness to relinquish their preconceptions about the characters.

Told in flashback, the story is Sandy’s memory, a former Brodie girl and, as the play begins, about to become a nun planning to take a vow of silence. Tracked down by a journalist who is interested in her previously published book, Sandy starts to talk about her arrival aged 11 at the Marcia Blaine School, where she and a select number of girls – Joyce, Monica, Mary and Jenny – fall under the spell of Miss Brodie, fascinated by her air of freedom, cultural knowledge and political fervour. As the children transform into young women, Miss Brodie’s influence makes its mark on all of them, while her ongoing flirtation with Music Teacher Mr Lowther and Art Teacher Mr Lloyd spills over into all their lives, exposing the extent of her effect on the girls.

While not an especially radical reinterpretation, Harrower has created a version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that recognisably celebrates the original novel and the charisma of its leading lady, while carefully sidestepping any parallels to the famous film. From first to last, the spectre of Maggie Smith and Celia Johsnon are banished, allowing a new cast to give shape and purpose to these roles. It’s a fairly safe production, using a conventional structure that loads the first half with praise and admiration for the inspiring teacher, while the second begins to tear at her motivation.

Harrower spends plenty of time establishing the key characters in the hour before the interval, building-up Miss Brodie as a free-spirit, a vision in scarlet, unwilling to conform to the rules and expectations of Marcia Blaine. A series of classroom scenes reveal her animated, if gossipy, teaching style, and what begins as a willingness to share stories of her life with her 11-year old charges soon includes criticisms of the headmistress and making her personal opinions the definitive response to a variety of topics when she starts to treat the girls as her confidants. Harrower’s adaptation renders this well, offering a sketch of life at the school that opens-up Miss Brodie’s method. Mirroring the girls’ experience, the kindliness of Act One becomes something more complex in Act Two.

After the interval, four years have gone by and the girls, now 15, are in the senior school and not directly taught by Miss Brodie. With so much of the real plot to now fit into the final hour of the show, this production makes clear the shifting affection of some girls has severed the closeness with their former teacher. And while it covers all the key consequences of her teaching style, the Donmar’s adaptation is slightly less successful in emphasising the political and sexual corruption that Miss Brodie advocates, actively using her girls like puppets to vicariously fulfil semi-romantic ideals she refuses to succumb to herself.

Partially, this is a desire to retain a shred of sympathy for the character, not wanting to entirely dismantle the affection that Sandy in particular, and the audience has developed for her. Although this is framed as Sandy’s story, it’s clear from the final scene, which appears out of chronological sequence, that it is Miss Brodie this production wants us to look at rather than the results of her work. The significant moment of political influence that Miss Brodie wields is lightly referenced earlier but the key conversation and its outcome are quickly dispatched in two rapid scenes, likewise the sexual encounter she encourages is glossed over rather than seen as a monstrous attempt to manipulate a young woman. These moments, and the outcomes of Miss Brodie’s intimacy with her set, could be considerably darker, leaving the audience with a more ambiguous image to take home with them.

Lia Williams is an actor who never fails to find exactly the right tone for a character and always brings something fresh to her interpretation. As Miss Brodie, Williams carefully controls every aspect of her interpretation, from the way she carries herself to the particular intonation of the soft Edinburgh accent. Dressed by Designer Lizzie Clachlan in tailored reds and greens to complement a meticulously curled strawberry blonde wig, Williams steps lightly across the stage, arms outstretched, or fingers delicately poised to emphasise her point as she imparts her wisdom to the class. Her physical presence is purposefully contrived to suggest a woman who tightly controls her image, consciously designing the impression of perfection she wants to convey to garner the exact devotional response she desires.

Beneath, there is a warmth to her exuberant tales in which Williams demonstrates how easy it would be for her to charm you, but away from the classroom hints are given of the more sullied desires beneath the surface. The way Williams looks at Edward MacLiam’s Mr Lloyd conveys a raging lust she struggles to hold in check, while actively manipulating the emotions of Angus Wright’s Mr Lowther to feed her vanity while actively dismisses his advances at every turn. As events begin to unravel in Act Two, Williams suggests something almost desperate in Miss Brodie, as her star begins to wane and the affection she ‘demanded’ from the girls dissipates. Although it’s an easy association, there’s something of Blanche Dubois about her, all affectation, secrets and delusion that make you wonder if any of the elaborate stories she’s told – even that of her deceased fiancé – were ever true.

Rona Morison has the more difficult task of portraying Sandy at three different stages of her life – aged 11, 15 and approximately 25 – which isn’t always as clear as it could be. The show’s structure allows director Polly Findlay to cut directly between the elder Sandy discussing events with the Journalist (Kit Young) at the convent and walking directly into the school, but she’s not a character you come to know. Morison does the best with what she is given, but as an observer to much of the action, Sandy’s own motivations, her continuing devotion to Miss Brodie long after the other girls have departed and her crucial role in the conclusion are left fairly unexplored.

Some of the girls are less well-defined, so in a tightly packed two hours and 15 minutes of stage time, there’s only space to see the wider set as Miss Brodie describes them, the intelligent Monica (Grace Saif), the wannabe actress Jenny (Helena Wilson) and meek Mary (Emma Hindle). Nicole Coughlan’s Joyce Emily more complete captures the childlike manner than the other performers, arriving as a sweetly self-conscious and adorable 11-year-old who desperately wants to be included, but feels the pain of not quite finding her own group, while as a 15-year-old Joyce’s political awakening could be given more room in the text, Coughlan imbues Joyce with a naïve idealism and determination that make an impact.

There is good support from Angus Wright’s puppy-dog-like Mr Lowther who only has to be reasonably dull and devoted to Miss Brodie, although his insistance on pressing his feelings in front of the girls adds a nice touch of determined awkwardness. MacLiam’s Mr Lloyd has a small role but cuts a dash as a fairly glamorous figure in his own right, artistic, surprisingly carefree despite his many children and service in the Great War which contrasts well with the staid school atmosphere and makes him a worthy flirtation for Miss Brodie. As Headmistress Miss MacKay, Sylvestra Le Touzel is a granite-like presence, occasionally a little two quiet even for the Donmar’s intimate space, yet her determination to remove Miss Brodie is as calculating as it is cool.

On Clachlan’s tomb-like set, this production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie contrasts cold-learning, and harsh realities with the idea of life experience and vivacity, separated by the ringing of bells that hang from the ceiling signalling the end of lessons and scenes. As the play unfolds, Harrower charts how we come to know the human foibles and failings of the adults in our lives, ones which at an impressionable age can shape you in the wrong way. It’s not quite the crème de la crème, deliberately pacifying some of Miss Brodie’s dark sexual and political influences in order to retain sympathy for her, but it is an enjoyable and distinct adaptation that does make you wonder where your favourite teachers are now and how much they really influenced you.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is at the Donmar Warehouse until 28 July, tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 400 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

8 responses to “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Donmar Warehouse

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    Thanks for this review. Substantial and thought-provoking as usual

    “One of the most famous literary inventions of them all, is also the most controversial – is Jean Brodie a ‘progressive’ educator or a worrying menace to the mind of her ‘girls’.”

    I’m not sure Brodie is ‘the most controversial’. I’m constantly amazed that The History Boys gets staged at all without various self-appointed moral guardians protesting at the theatre door.

    “…a conventional structure that loads the first half with praise and admiration for the inspiring teacher, while the second begins to tear at her motivation…Harrower spends plenty of time establishing the key characters in the hour before the interval, building-up Miss Brodie as a free-spirit, a vision in scarlet…”

    Williams’s interpretation, more than Maggie Smith’s, suggested to me almost from the outset that Brodie was unstable rather than just eccentric or free-spirited. Of course, the fact that I already know the story might have a lot to do with this.

    “…not wanting to entirely dismantle the affection that Sandy in particular, and the audience has developed for her. ..likewise the sexual encounter she encourages is glossed over rather than seen as a monstrous attempt to manipulate a young woman. These moments, and the outcomes of Miss Brodie’s intimacy with her set, could be considerably darker…”

    The production certainly gives Brodie an easier time than the novel or the film, I thought; especially in the way the sexual content is toned down. It’s not an overly sexualised work to start with but Spark makes no bones about the fact that Brodie wants Rose (here, as in the film, incorporated into the character of Jenny) to start an affair with Teddy Lloyd or about the fact that it’s Sandy who does so. We don’t even get the quote about one of the girls (Rose) destined to become ‘famous for sex’. It occurred to me that Brodie is a very strong illustration of Shaw’s maxim: ‘he who can does, he who cannot teaches’. It’s pretty clear that she can’t ‘do’ sex, politics or even art: but she expounds on the subjects as if her opinion were objective truth. I’m afraid this production caused a few unworthy thoughts to flash through my mind. Firstly, heaven forgive me, it occurred to me that Hugh had a lucky escape getting killed in WW1; secondly, by the end, Sandy had me paraphrasing Jane’s question to James in ‘Coupling’: ‘God and Jean Brodie! Can’t you love anyone normal?’

    “…her continuing devotion to Miss Brodie long after the other girls have departed and her crucial role in the conclusion are left fairly unexplored.”

    And yet Sandy’s identification with the teacher seems to be signalled by the fact that both are played as redheads. You’re almost certainly more attuned to this kind of coding than I am, but it struck me as unlikely to be insignificant. I wondered, too, why Sandy and Monica had different belts from the other girls. Surely Marcia Blaine would have had a strict uniform policy.

    “Coughlan imbues Joyce with a naïve idealism and determination that make an impact.”

    Coughlan’s performance was fine but I thought the expansion of this character was a mistake. She’s fairly minor in the novel and , iIrc, incorporated into Mary in the film. The lesson we draw from the contrast between Brodie’s romantic view of conflict and Joyce’s tragic reality is an important one; but I think it works better if she’s not too involved with ‘the set’.

    “occasionally a little too quiet even for the Donmar’s intimate space”

    From the standing places behind the Circle it wasn’t just Miss Mackay who was sometimes inaudible. I still thought le Touzel’s performance was the outstanding one in this production (not that there was anything wrong with the others).

    To sum up, despite good performances I found this production underwhelming. I still don’t regret the long day trip to see it (especially as I had a free train ticket to compensate for problems on an earlier trip). I hope it prompts people to consider how often those who are utterly convinced of their own rightness – whether it’s Donald Trump or a sanctimonious Twitter storm – are horrendously wrong. I’m off to Mold for Home, I’m Darling next week, then London again the week after for a (as yet unselected – perhaps Imperium) matinee quickly followed by The One .

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John – great to hear your thoughts on this and so interesting to be able to compare the three approaches to the novel, film and theatre.

      I agree that aspects of this were underwhelming, and while I certainly enjoyed the approach and was entertained by the story, I didn’t love it or feel fully satisfied with its rejection of the darker aspects of the original story.

      You’re certainly right about the early signalling of Brodie as somewhat delusional and laughed at your suggestion that her fiance had a lucky escape – although Williams’s performance did make me wonder (for the first time) if he ever existed or is just another one of her elaborate stories, presented for effect. As you say this does make you question why people take such entrenched positions.

      I look forward to your thoughts on Home, I’m Darling which I’ll see at the National in a few weeks, and Imperium if you manage to see both parts. And I’m still trying to find a date for The One!

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    “Williams’s performance did make me wonder (for the first time) if he ever existed or is just another one of her elaborate stories!”

    Did Hugh exist? I’d have to re-read the novel to see if there are any references to him outside Jean’s own report. It’s a fascinating question, all the same. Is Teddy Lloyd deficient as a candidate for her devotion because he is ‘only’ maimed? I don’t need to tell you, with your specialist knowledge of this period, that the war left a generation of women without enough young men. But for a certain kind of fastidious creature, this shortage of eligible men might well have provided a very convenient alibi for their own inability to commit; and an imaginary lost fiance is far easier to idealise than a real one.

    I’ll let you know my thoughts on Home, I’m Darling – and there’ll be a report in the usual place, if you’ve found a way to access it, by Friday at the latest. I do hope you get to see The One. I trust you know it is very short (75 minutes if that) which might make it easier to fit into your schedule (I can’t normally do a midweek evening performance but with a 1915 start I still have plenty of time to get to Euston for the last train home at 2107). The negative side of this is that the per minute cost is very high but I think the length is just about right as much more of this could be very exhausting for the audience, let alone the cast!

    Did you spot that Patsy Ferran is Laura Wingfield in Drama on (radio) 3 tomorrow at 1930? That promises to be intense. Anastasia Hille as Amanda, too. To me that spells unmissable.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Thanks John. Certainly more layers to unpick in this production of Brodie, and there is something quite fitting about the idea of her using the war as a convenient excuse for her desire to remain unattached.

      I have managed to read your message board and looking at your comments with interest. I’ve bookmarked it so I can check in regularly, and will look for your thoughts on Home, I’m Darling next weekend.

      Thanks for the Radio 3 tip, I’ll try to catch-up with that at some point too!

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I saw Home, I’m Darling as planned and left a report in the usual place. With new plays I try not to give too much of the plot away – though I sometimes (and this is one of those times) include footnotes in small type and people can read them or not as they see fit. I also left a response to Clare Howdon’s review on The Reviews Hub. I’m happy to go into greater detail for you if you’re interested; or I could wait and respond to your review assuming you write one. Actually, I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts – especially if they’re posted here in your usual extended format – because I’m rather surprised by the praise heaped on this piece. More specifically, I find it hard to read the general view that the play addresses important issues without wondering what these issues are and what the reviewers think Wade is saying about them. If you want me to elaborate on this, let me know (and tell me where to post it – I can’t help being aware that this is a bit off-topic under your review of Brodie); otherwise I look forward to seeing your thoughts on the Dorfman performance.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John -its very interesting to hear a less rapturous response to the play. I haven’t read any of the reviews yet because I didn’t want my own interpretation of the play to be coloured by them, but you can’t help but see the star ratings flash by. I will look at your thoughts, now I’ve found your messageboard.

      I will try to see the play in a couple of weeks but with so many other big shows opening over the next few weeks, it may be a month or so before there’s space to post about it.

      In the meantime for a future visit The Lehman Trilogy and King Lear are worth trying for.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    Your approach is similar to mine – go into the auditorium with as few preconceptions as you can. Best to leave any further comment until after you’ve seen it, then. The R3OK report should be fairly safe, especially if you skip the footnotes; but, if it’s not too late, you might want to avoid my comments on The Reviews Hub because, inresponse to Clare Howdon, I had to mention a couple of details of the plot (and, of course, what I thought they signified).

    Thanks for the recommendations. McKellen’s Lear is a vague aim but I’ll be disappointed if I miss The Lehmann Trilogy. Fortunately it’s at the Lyttelton so, unless they’ve changed the system, queuing up for front row day seats is an option; and I’m in :London more often in July/Aug because of the Proms.

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