Donmar Warehouse, London – until 28 July 2018
If you think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is some whimsical reincarnation of the 1969 film with Maggie Smith flitting about Edinburgh in a chiffon scarf dripping witty epigrams about Mussolini – think again.
David Harrower’s breathtakingly clever adaptation puts a postwar perspective on Miss Brodie’s 1933 preference to run the gamut of all things Italian from Art to Blackshirts, by framing scenes in 1947 with her protégée Sandy interviewed following a blockbuster novel about her childhood, and on the brink of entering a convent.
Partly drawing on author Muriel Spark’s own experience – the semi-autobiographical Jean Brodie eclipsed all her other writings – it allows us to both see and enjoy the beloved teacher inspiring her pupils, but also consider how wise it was to inculcate them with admiration of fascism, or early sexual experimentation, or underage sherry.
This depiction reinforces that the girls are 11 at the start of the story, and may make you feel that Sylvestra Le Touzel’s splendidly buttoned-up headmistress Miss Mackay may not be entirely wrong to disapprove.
Lia Williams’ portrayal of Jean Brodie is astonishing. She is to the life the luminous, literate freethinker the girls naturally adore; but her reactions to any perceived slight, her sudden and frightening anger, and her subtle miscalculation of the pivotal point in more than one of her girls’ lives are superbly crafted, and eclipse any version of this story you may have seen before.
The ‘girls’ are splendidly chosen, authentically convincing as junior school pupils and well differentiated as teenagers: from the early confidence of Helena Wilson’s Jenny determined to be Olivia in the school play, to Nicola Coughlan’s heartbreaking fate as Joyce-Emily, the outsider the Brodie set won’t embrace. Rona Morison’s portrayal of Sandy is extremely complex and varied and illustrates perfectly the determination Miss Brodie underestimates.
Lizzie Clachan‘s set is sparse but so effective – borrowing, I think, from the columbarium at Carlo Scarpa’s Brion tombs and the pinnacle of purist concrete Italian architecture – with a clerestory window hinting at Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it frames and defines the grey stones of Marcia Blaine Academy, the convent, and the cold heart of fascism.
It’s a short run at the Donmar – take any available ticket, Polly Findlay’s splendidly-cast and nimbly directed production is a must-see. And let’s hope it has a longer life somewhere else.
Decidedly, the crème de la crème of the West End at the moment.