Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the National - Lyttelton
No one forgets a good teacher, intones the Teacher Training Agency's ad campaign. But few of us have had a teacher quite so unforgettable as Miss Jean Brodie. A teacher who - as Muriel Spark said of the real teacher who inspired her to write her novel - was in fact “a character in search of an author”.
And quite a character. Brodie is surely one of the all-time plummest roles for an actress. Part monster, part martyr. The cultural elitist, lover of the Italianate arts and fascism, who grooms her girls to become “la crème de la crème” in her own image. The harlot who, in conservative 1930s Edinburgh, trips with scandalous discretion from the beds of married and single men. The woman, continually and gloriously “in her prime”, who eschews marriage and security because of her love of teaching.
It's no wonder so many renowned actresses have queued up to play Brodie - from Vanessa Redgrave in the 1966 stage production, Maggie Smith in the 1969 film, Geraldine McEwan in the 1978 TV series, Patricia Hodge in the 1994 West End revival and now Fiona Shaw in this newly adapted version by Jay Presson Allen.
Shaw does the part wonderful justice. Arrogant but innocent and oh-so-charismatic, she has a way of striking a pose at just the right moment for an eruption of laughter. It's easy to see why men and “girls of an impressionable age” find her so alluring.
Shaw is strongly supported by her young Brodie set, particularly Susannah Wise as the bitterly jealous Sandy who betrays Brodie and later dons a nun's habit as penance. The handful of other adult parts - Brodie's lovers (Nicholas Le Prevost and Adam Kotz) and the disapproving headmistress Miss Mackay (Annette Badland) - are also well developed.
Phyllida Lloyd s direction is surest during lighter moments, when she fills Huntley Muir s simple but versatile set with whimsical spelling games, giggling girls, school outings and Brodie's hilarious slide shows. Some of the heavier sequences are more faltering and too reliant on religious and artistic allusions. When the laughs die out and Brodie's heavily foreshadowed betrayal finally arrives, it is not nearly so heartrending as expected. It is so unfinal, in fact, that the clapping as the stagelights dim is hesitant - is that really it, one wonders?
Still, despite the less than cathartic end, this is definitely a Jean Brodie worth catching - from an actress in the very midst of her prime.