The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is Muriel Spark’s best-known novel, which now plays as newly structured adaptation by playwright David Harrower and directed by Polly Findlay at the Donmar Warehouse. A young reporter (Kit Young) interviews Sandy (Rona Morison) about her treatise just before she swears a vow of silence and becomes a nun. The answers to his questions are given in flashbacks to the time when Sandy is eleven years old and a new student at Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh. She and her classmates (Emma Hindle, Grace Saif, Helena Wilson and Nicola Coughlan) are introduced to the eccentric but intriguing Miss Jean Brodie (Lia Williams). Brodie prefers to stray from the curriculum of antagonistic headmistress Mackay (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and educates the students about Italy, her own (love) life and fascism instead. Her crème de la crème students are frequently invited to secret art and sherry drinking lessons.
The pupils find themselves captivated by the love triangle of Miss Brodie, their music teacher Mr Lowther (Angus Wright) and the married war-veteran and art teacher Mr Lloyd. Brodie’s heart is clearly set on Lloyd, but she often decides to live vicariously through her students rather than getting in too deep with either man. This is where her more sinister side starts showing…
This play is Sandy’s story, yet Brodie snatches the role as protagonist away from her. Both are complex female characters. Sandy is an observer, a writer, quick-witted but cold – Brodie is passionate, charming, and manipulative. They mirror and oppose each other, sharing the deepest loyalty and betrayal.
There is no doubt that Brodie is genuinely cares about her circle of carefully selected students, so when her streaks of coercive control become obvious, it is easy to feel as disillusioned by it as Sandy does. The production of this sharp-witted piece at the Donmar draws wild laughs and shocked gasps alike from its audience.
All performances are outstanding, but Rona Morison’s fluid transition of all of Sandy’s ages and emotions is magnetic. Williams effortlessly leads through the plot as well of all of Brodie’s shades and layers. She has the audience under her spell within her first few lines.
It’s a clever, wildly funny and dark production about the limitations of feminism in the 1930s, the rise of fascism, and the responsibility of authorative figures on the impressionable youth.
Reviewed by Lisa Theresa Downey-Dent
Photo: Manuel Harlan
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