Reviews Published 30 June 2018

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at Donmar Theatre

June 12th - July 28th 2018

Listen and learn: Polly Findlay’s play is a masterclass in puncturing the trope of the Charismatic Maverick Teacher.

Alice Saville

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ at the Donmar. Photo: Manuel Harlan

A Guide to Charismatic Maverick Teacherdom

The basics
In an era of tightly enforced curricula and endlessly shifting targets for schools, the maverick teacher is a highly appealing figure. They cut through the noise of Orwellian management diktats, wafting into the classroom in a haze of French perfume/woodbine smoke/devil-may-care-attitude. They are masked in an invisible fug of in-my-day nostalgia, a problematic emblem of ‘sticking it to the man’. Whether or not Muriel Spark actually invented the trope, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of its first and most powerful exponents.

Miss Jean Brodie is a sensual addition to a staid Edinburgh school, its granite foundations built on ideas of duty and hard work. She plys her students with stories of Italy, boundless faith in their abilities and carelessly meted out glasses of sherry. Her sultry figure and elegant Embra accents have since been followed by less seductive, but equally charismatic successors: Dead Poet’s Society, the film where Robin Williams played a maverick English teacher who told his boys to “carpe diem”, to achieve extraordinary things in a staid 1959 boarding school. And, of course, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, where two charismatic maverick teachers duel to send a class of 1980s grammar school boys to Oxbridge. What follows is a guide to this trope, to be followed only with extreme caution.

You will need
-Rapier wit
-A ready supply of literary, classic and cinematic allusions for every occasion
-An air of decidedly continental sophistication
-Tweed
-Some dark secrets from the past (these can be invented if necessary)
-A complete lack of awareness of appropriate boundaries

Lesson planning
Really, you needn’t bother preparing anything. It is perfectly acceptable to wait for the class to sing you a song. Or to show them photos for your recent holiday, before launching into a tear-stained monologue about your lost love. Recite your favourite authors (not theirs, goodness no – your role is to form their taste in your image). You are fascinating, and frankly, the pupils should consider themselves blessed to receive any pearls of wisdom you choose to bestow.

Classroom management
You are above rules and so are your pupils. Instead of operating like a teacher, operate like the coolest kid in school: behaving badly means being excluded from the charmed circle of your love and approval. Make it clear who your favourites are, and lavish them with attention and illicit treats so that they’ll keep order when you’re not around.

Keeping the school on side
For some unfathomable reason, headteachers aren’t always supportive of the unique methods of Charismatic Maverick Teachers. Which means some subterfuge is necessary. Instruct pupils to keep their textbooks open – preferably all on the same page. Swear them to secrecy. Meet any criticisms with wild, passionate, abstract discourses on the nature of inspiration and education.

Case study: Miss Jean Brodie
Miss Jean Brodie is a primary school teacher who treats her 11-year-old charges like acolytes, or accomplices, or – slightly uncomfortably – lovers. She wins their love with outlandish flattery of their beauty, or intelligence. She seems to be giving them access to something they, in dull grey Presbyterian interwar Edinburgh, can’t quite reach, soaking their lives in sunlight and sensuality.

As played by the wonderful Lia Williams, in Polly Findlay’s intimate production that rings to the sound of real school bells, it’s impossible not to fall slightly in love with her. Nicola Coughlan’s eloquent essay in The Guardian talks about the dangers of reducing actors to their bodies and she’s so, so right. Particularly since her performance in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is such a shining one – she plays Joyce Emily, a schoolgirl who’s desperate to be loved by Sandy (Rona Morison), even as their early friendship is torn apart by Miss Jean Brodie’s possessive influence over her. Joyce Emily evolves from a needy, childishly affectionate 11-year-old to a 15-year-old who vibrates with the need to do something, be something, to the extent that she fights in the Spanish Civil War. This is a complex performance, its outward emotionalism contrasting with Sandy’s prickly, inward-turning quest for greatness.

I don’t want to define anyone by their body, especially within the gendered framework that Coughlan describes, whereby female actors are obliged to hold to rigid standards of physical appearance, and put under the microscope both within the industry and by (generally male) critics who feel obliged to make it clear which performers they deem attractive, and which they don’t. But I do want to say that seeing a performance is a subjective experience, and that the embodied reality of the performers on stage is part of that experience, and that not talking about it some way (ideally a respectful, sensitive one) sucks the life and soul from any response to a show. Basically all this is a long preamble towards saying that midway through The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I developed a massive crush on Lia Williams – which, perhaps, in some interpretations of the role of a critic, I shouldn’t talk about.

But it is relevant to this case study, this exploration of Charismatic Maverick Teacherdom, because I think that what a brilliant actor in the right role can do is deliver a performance that exudes sexuality in a way that transforms their body into something other than itself, that transcends traditional ideas of sexiness, that lies in an arched eyebrow or a backwards glance. With Williams’ performance, it’s something that comes from her air of complete disinhibition, her archness, the way she holds an attitude like she’s posed on a magazine cover, not an ink-stained school desk. The way she manipulates the male teachers around her, and her pupils too, feeding them the oxygen of her attention and her gaze for just long enough to get what she wants.

And this central sexiness, which steams off the stage and through the audience, is essential to the fundamental rottenness at the heart of this story. Muriel Spark sees what other authors don’t. The History Boys fundamentally presents Hector as a positive influence on his charges’ lives, despite his manipulativeness, despite his fumbled sexual assaults on them. And that’s something I can’t forgive. Writing decades earlier, Muriel Spark understands that Miss Jean Brodie is both mesmerising and, at heart, toxic. Her sexiness is directed at everyone, however inappropriate the target (I’m thinking of that sour line by Alexander Pope: “Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,/ And, like the sun, they shine on all alike”). And that means that her behaviour is often abusive, rather than romantic or charismatic – it’s something that forces children to keep secrets, that kills one of them and damages all of them, these vulnerable bodies that revolve around her.

Polly Findlay’s production shifts from sensuality – ringing bells, an overwhelmingly beautiful wall of massed flowers – to something sparse and sad. A crush, punctured. It’s a masterclass in the art of being a Charismatic Maverick Teacher that ultimately shows how incredibly dangerous these egotistical, lovable, disciple-gathering, playground geniuses actually are.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is on at the Donmar Warehouse until July 28th. More info here. 

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at Donmar Theatre Show Info


Directed by Polly Findlay

Written by Muriel Spark, adapted by David Harrower

Cast includes Lia Williams, Rona Morison, Nicola Coughlan, Emma Hindle, Edward Mackliam, Grace Saif, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Helena Wilson, Angus Wright, Kit Young

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