It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that Lia Williams, star of the Donmar Warehouse’s adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, has a spark. Glamorous, witty and donning a red dress, she is an island of sophistication in the sea of grey dreariness that is Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Polly Findlay’s direction makes it easy to understand men’s captivation by Miss Brodie, and her influence on the 11-year-old girls she handpicks to be part of her elite set. Williams’ Miss Brodie’s charisma is such that at times she seems to be on a higher plane, one that is morally superior and above the tedium of a conventional education. Together Findlay and Williams create a demagogue able to distract from her flaws, deep love of fascism, and to disguise the sinister nature in which she plays puppet master with her girls.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie returns to the stage 100 years since the birth of its author Muriel Sparks in an adaptation by David Harrower. Miss Brodie is one in a long line of problematic, larger than life teachers who flout the curriculum, for their own self-designed and self-aggrandised one which features, art history etc. much to the chagrin of the stuffy school establishment. Harrower’s adaptation features a journalist interviewing a hostile Sally Stranger (Rona Morison), as she is about to take a vow of silence and become a nun. In a discussion about the influences behind her bestselling book, we see flashbacks of her time as one of Miss Brodie’s set.
Morison is excellent as the spy like star Sally Stranger, though Harrower’s adaptation chooses to strip her of some of her complexity and bitterness, in favour of a clear narrative window into the classroom. Her obsessive interest in the love life of Miss Brodie is put down to girlish wonderment. Her affair with Mr Lloyd is somewhat downplayed and becomes slightly curious as the audience’s only real experience of an interaction between them is a fractious one. The depiction of their relationship in this way only, heightens its impropriety. Additionally, the subject of Miss Brodie’s betrayal has diminished prominence in the story that could have given it a bit more pace. Hilarious at times, Angus Wright’s swagger-less Mr Lowther is a loveable addition.
Miss Brodie’s attempts to live vicariously through her students ring even more eerily when performed to the backdrop of Lizzie Clachan’s mausoleum-esque set. Living her life within its bounds, Miss Brodie is content to drink Sherry and gossip with pre-pubescent girls, recklessly push one of them to fulfil her own longing for a relationship with the married Mr Lloyd and another to fight in the Spanish Civil War rather than live her life. Illuminating that despite the joie de vivre she exudes, there is something darker and emptier inside.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is ageless in depicting the difficulty of our formative influencers, and the sometimes-fine line between well-placed encouragement and reckless endangerment.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is playing at Donmar Warehouse until 28 July.
Photo: Manuel Harlan