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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Donmar Warehouse review - Lia Williams makes an iconic role her own | reviews, news & interviews

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Donmar Warehouse review - Lia Williams makes an iconic role her own

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Donmar Warehouse review - Lia Williams makes an iconic role her own

Familiar title is reinvigorated afresh in a startling revival

Charisma: Nicola Coughlan as Joyce Emily and Lia Williams as Jean BrodieManuel Harlan

Lia Williams can be said to have been in her prime ever since the double-whammy several decades ago when she appeared onstage in fairly quick succession in Oleanna and then the original, and unsurpassable, production of Skylight. But she's rarely had the spotlight afforded her by Polly Findlay's altogether terrific reclamation for the Donmar Warehouse of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which tethers a familiar Muriel Spark title to a newly scalding adaptation by David Harrower (supplanting the Jay Presson Allen one of old). 

And whether sensual or severe, in full emotive flight or surrendering to a fantasist's fury, Williams catches every charismatic point on a spectrum barely done justice by the word "mercurial". As soon as you think you've pegged the Scottish schoolteacher known most famously to this day for having brought Maggie Smith the first of her two Oscars, Williams takes you somewhere else. And the performance is capped by an unexpected final scene that amounts to the most searing performative coup of the year so far. 

At first, dressed in flowing red with pumps to match and hair coiffed like a film star of the age, Williams exerts an effortlessly breathy command. You understand in an instant why the 11-year-old girls in her charge at the (fictional) Marcia Blaine School for Girls fall under her spell. "I am cashmere to Miss Mackay's granite," she says in an especially adroit remark that gets at the heart of her self-regard. Extolling Giotto over Leonardo and possessed of quite a few commendable things to say about Mussolini, Miss Brodie defiantly goes her own way, leaving the likes of her superior, Miss Mackay (Sylvestra le Touzel, pictured right, in full quasi-martinet flow), to proffer a corrective voice from the sidelines. That's, of course, until such time as one of this galvanic presence's own students does her in. 

Nursing an unsalvageable loss of her own, Miss Brodie is good at general exhortations (her famous line about seizing a girl "at an impressionable age" is one of them) but less skilled one-on-one. There's a telling scene early on where she can't find it in herself to comfort the distressed Joyce Emily (Nicola Coughlan, splendid), while the poor Mary McGregor (Emma Hindle) receives little more than withering broadsides from this supposed bearer of brightness and light.

Coyly flirtatious with the various men in her orbit, whether the war-wounded art teacher, Mr Lloyd (Edward MacLiam), or the more bumbling if career-ascendant Mr Lowther (a sweetly hesitant Angus Wright), Miss Brodie hides some degree of steel beneath her fluttery facade  which, in turn, is why the fate that befalls her is doubly grievous to behold. (Mr Lloyd all but anticipates her fall both from glamour and from grace when he utters the throwaway remark, "Let's see what ageing does to you.") 

It's possible to see the material as a critique of the cult of personality, and Miss Brodie's fondness for a sort of call-and-response with her students makes one wonder what she might be like at a rally of the very fascists whose realpolitik appeals to her sense of order. (She finds a window open too wide to be "vulgar".) That said, and extant commentary to the contrary, she's far from the precursor to Trump (thank heavens) that some have claimed. Williams's gift lies in animating the character's driving sprightliness and wit - "'how' is an adverb that should not be applied to one's leisure time" is my favourite – while communicating a raging defiance and self-belief that pull you up short: "I will remain," Miss Brodie says, and you're in no doubt that she means it. Findlay, as director, has found both a governing ferocity and pathos to a piece that doesn't need the lumbering framing device that finds one of Miss Brodie's star pupils, the Oxford-educated Sandy (Rona Morison), being interviewed some years later about a book she has written that is mysteriously dedicated to "J". (Oddly, the presence of the interviewer has resulted in a few deliberately empty chairs at the very front of the reconfigured auditorium: a venue where spare seats can be especially hard to come by.)

But Morison (pictured above) is wonderful in this pivotal role, her Sandy communicating a quiet, acute watchfulness that finds its match in Miss Brodie: notice at the outset the way in which Williams's Brodie takes in the scene unfolding in front of her prior to entering into conversation. The soundscape incorporates numerous tolling bells that manage to evoke places of study and worship alongside those of mourning, and Lizzie Clachan's grey-walled set suggests the academic "mausoleum" spoken of in passing. A more piercing image arises after the interval in a reference to "this educational abbatoir", and Miss Brodie by play's end suggests a lamb led to a slaughter partly of her own devising, but also not. Even ashen-faced and enfeebled, Miss Brodie can't be easily contained, and nor can the talent of the actress who has brought a figure both irresistible and fearsome rivetingly back to life.

Miss Brodie's fondness for a sort of call-and-response with her students makes one wonder what she might be like at a rally of the very fascists whose realpolitik appeals to her sense of order

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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