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Posts Tagged ‘Muriel Spark’

This is the most famous of Muriel Spark’s twenty-two novels, her 6th, published in 1961, which was on stage within five years, on film within eight and a TV series ten years after that. Last seen on stage in London twenty years ago, at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in a production by Phyllida Lloyd starring Fiona Shaw, this is a new version by Scottish playwright David Harrower. Though he’s done a lot of adaptations, he seemed an odd choice, but as it turns out he’s taken an interesting, fresh look.

Set in the thirties in a private girls school in Edinburgh, teacher Jean Brodie’s determination to teach her girls about life sets her on a collision course with Miss Mackay’s strict adherence to the curriculum. She treats them like friends, telling them about her relationships and her experiences, inviting them to her home. They are more like followers than pupils. At first it all seems mildly subversive and rather charming, until you realise how much control she exerts, her attempts to make choices for and mould her girls, not forgetting her fascist leanings. There is a dalliance with married art teacher Mr Lloyd and a long relationship with music teacher Mr Lowther, whose proposal she spurns. She is eventually betrayed and is forced to leave the school. It’s often very funny, but at times it’s sinister and dark too.

It’s told partly in flashback from post-war scenes where one of the girls, who went to Oxford and published a memoir, is interviewed by a journalist just before she enters a convent, and I’m not sure this worked that well or if was really necessary in telling the story. They’ve put in a middle aisle and swapped the front two rows of the stalls for wooden school chairs, which I’m also not sure is entirely necessary. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to create a partly glazed back wall and ceiling, yet Lizzie Clachan’s design still seems to be missing something. I did love the use of bells, though, which emphasise both the school setting and the period.

If you need only one reason to see Polly Findlay’s revival it’s Lia Williams brilliant performance. She makes the role her own, delightful in her opinionated rebelliousness but ultimately transformed into a tragic figure. I’ve long admired her work, but this is a career high. In a fine supporting cast, Rona Morrison is terrific as Sandy, who sees the negatives in Brodie’s approach, and Sylvestra Le Touzel provides the contrasting sternness of Miss Mackay.

Good to see it on stage again, and warmly recommended.

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