Sunday 1 July 2018

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar, or, A Regrettable Absence of Subtlety

Note: A review of the performance on Monday 25th June 2018.

There's an early sign that all is not well with this adaptation of Muriel Spark's classic novel, and it appears on Lia Williams's first entry as Miss Brodie. She's costumed in a skin tight crimson dress. This stands out overly conspicuously in the otherwise grey to black décor of just about everything else. Clearly Miss Brodie is supposed to be distinctive but this carries matters too far, especially when coupled with the exaggerated, mannered delivery which Williams adopts. Very quickly I found this irritating rather than compelling, and the devotion she has to inspire in “her girls” simply didn't make sense in this context.

As this slow-paced evening went on it became clear to me that this initial costume decision is linked to wider problematic choices in the production as a whole. The novel is set in Edinburgh, and David Harrower's adaptation has retained many of the specific references – but there is little sense of place in Lizzie Clachan's bland set of a couple of concrete walls and half a dozen wooden chairs. Nor was I ever really convinced that the streets of Edinburgh, a city where I lived for over ten years, were present off-stage. The sense of time is similarly problematic. Again the script is very specific – we are in the interwar period – but the staging does nothing to really convince that this is when we are. Given that a crucial plot point hinges on that timing this is another significant issue.

Then there are the flowers. Late in Act Two there's a funeral. At this point the pacing becomes glacial as slowly a series of bouquets are set into the sconces in the concrete wall at the back. I was suddenly reminded of the unfortunate flower interlude in Ivo van Hove's recent unconvincing Hedda Gabler at the National. And with that reminder certain things about the production more generally snapped into place. It struck me that director Polly Findlay deploys a number of current fads – so we have an overly intrusive and not very effective soundscape of ringing bells hung around the upper reaches of the auditorium (that the passage of time is key is perfectly clear from the text – this doesn't help to give it weight), a lot of choreographed movement of the chairs, and the already mentioned flowers. Yet the production overall feels marooned between realism and a more abstract world and fails to satisfy as a result.

If Findlay had managed to make the relationships strike home the failings of the production would have mattered less, but here too there are problems. The central issue, already mentioned, is the approach taken with Miss Brodie. I'd really admired Williams's performance as Elizabeth in the recent Almeida Mary Stuart but here while quite a few people in the audience evidently found her very funny – I found the characterisation both calculated and over the top. The manipulation is so blatant that it does not convince that the intelligent Sandy in particular doesn't spot what is going on. At times I also felt Williams was playing lines too much to the audience, in a way that further undermines the already weakly established on-stage world. This is a real problem when one of the key points is that the world on stage is supposed to be very claustrophobic. The quintet of schoolgirls are stronger, and I'd like to see Rona Morison (Sandy) in other roles but again the sense of lives being at stake in these jealousies and traumas never quite came alive for me. I thought of the recent Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour – flawed, but finding much more depth in similar teen torments.Of the adults, Angus Jackson's reserve is better suited to Mr Lowther than it was to his recent Claudius but in the end is too much on one note to really impact in the crucial moments. Sylvestra Le Touzel''s Miss Mackay finds, for me, the most emotionally convincing moment in the evening when she reveals her own bereavement and tries to counsel Jean Brodie but it's not a sufficiently complete performance – it works in the moment but doesn't emerge as part of an organic whole.

One other note on accents – despite a dialect coach being credited many are rather all over the place. The worst culprit is Edward Macliam's art teacher who visits Ireland and America in the course of the evening, but overall these do little to lend credence to the theoretical Edinburgh setting.

Fundamentally, I suggest, what has gone wrong here is that all subtlety has been mislaid.
By the end of the evening I'm afraid I had ceased to care about the protagonists, and was irritated by Williams. One to avoid.

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