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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Polly Findlay directs David Harrower’s adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Lizzie Clachan’s warmly stark set is lit by Charles Balfour. Composer Marc Tritschler and sound designer Paul Arditti have suspended bells of all kinds. Jonathan Goddard ensures fluidity of movement.


‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.’ The famous Jesuit saying adopted by Miss Brodie should give us a clue, standing against Calvinist Miss Mackay’s ‘Culture is no compensation for lack of hard knowledge.’


David Harrower lays bare Catholic versus Calvinist engulfing people in his adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Born close to where Muriel Spark grew up, Harrower had the distinction of Spark’s blessing his enterprise.


Do we need it? It’s fleeter than Jay Presson Allen’s famed 1966 version and though running for two hours twenty, feels less. In director Polly Findlay’s swift dissolves, Harrower’s version proves fluid, intercutting a (recurring) frame of 1947 with the 1930s, in Lizzie Clachan’s warmly stark set, crisply lit by Charles Balfour, doing service for nunnery and the Marcia Blaine school. A few chairs, a strip of corridor walkway and recessed backdrop of light eggshell with slide doors and at one point, flowers thrust into brackets. Jonathan Goddard’s movement ensures a quicksilveriness that’s a hallmark of this production.


The most striking feature though is the sound, summoning nuns and schoolgirls. Composer Marc Tritschler and sound designer Paul Arditti have suspended bells of all kinds that a mechanism causes to be struck – with the largest knelled by Kit Young’s Journalist from 1947 at a key moment. Clachan’s kitted Lia Williams’ eponymous character with a cadmium red dress then one in light emerald to offset a smart black uniformity elsewhere.


The journalist’s come to interview novice nun Sandy Stranger (Rona Morison) about why after a double first from Oxford and an acclaimed book on psychology she’s opted to take the veil. Stranger’s reluctant at first, then proves commanding even to the Mother Superior: her own story and Brodie’s grips her.


In this version Brodie the romantic fascist declaiming ‘One’s prime is the moment one was born for’ has met her nemesis in the person she least suspected and we know it early. What’s laid out is Sandy’s other betrayal, of clingy Joyce Emily, Nicola Coughlan’s unnervingly piteous befriender and bringer of gifts.


It turns sour because of Brodie’s confused Calvinist streak – however she sees herself. There’s sheep and goats, and for Brodie Joyce Emily is mere goat. Sandy, a sheep, soon shuns her. The declension of their relationship is painfully vivid: there’s little so ruthless as watching a cleverer schoolchild discard their slower sidekick. Morison’s watchfulness, her standing back with a writer’s sliver of ice in the heart is as perilous to her as those she hurts. Harrower’s elegantly crafted a double fall, Sandy and Brodie somehow cancelling each other.


Brodie’s selected an inner group of girls the ‘crème de la crème’. ‘To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul…. I am putting old heads on your young shoulders.’ That’s Williams’ lyrical peroration. She purrs with feline malice too, overtly disloyal: ‘Miss Mackay retains Stanley Baldwin on the wall because she believes in the slogan ‘Safety First’. But… Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.’ Her oblivious mixture of extolling Giotto (not Da Vinci) with Mussolini, engineering lives for her students, starts scarring lives and worse. And as Harrower shows, humiliation pushes her there. Williams’ and his Brodie seem at once more quixotic, and vulnerable.


Some girls, like Grace Saif’s sharp-witted scientific Monica, escape early from her clutches. There’s a mystery as to why Emma Hindle’s Mary, a slow-witted girl is there at all, save to be ‘pure in heart’. Brodie is all ‘insight’ and ‘instinct’ combined; no-one touches her perfection. If Sandy is ‘insight’ and a writer, ‘Jenny is instinct’. Helena Wilson’s character is destined for the remaining arm of war-wounded painter Teddy Lloyd (Edward Macliam): Catholic, married with nine children and enamoured of Brodie as she of him. Jenny (Rose in the book, conflated here with a lesser figure) is above morality as Brodie’s sexual proxy. But it’s not Jenny who responds.


If Brodie’s forgiven by Lloyd and the hopelessly courting music master Gordon Lowther (Angus Wright’s agonizingly decent shy persona breaking out with explosive consequences), Sylvestre Le Touzel’s Miss Mackay brings a superb snap to her rationale. However Brodie squirms, you feel all the time Mackay watches, not wholly unsympathetic, but remorseless in her own weeding out of goats. She even tries moving Brodie who scorns ‘to apply for a job at a crank school’ by which she means progressive. There’s a limit to epigrammatic self-delusion, however splendid, as when Brodie’s summoned: ‘4:15. Not 4 not 4:30 but 4:15. She thought to intimidate me with the use of quarter hours.’


Harrower deploys binaries skilfully throughout. Lowther’s prone to fumble proposals, where Lloyd snatches at Brodie. In this too we’re treated to her visceral response: interrupted, it leads to flustered pretence. Harrower’s good at gathering crises to a head too, drawing both male characters’ reactions to Brodie towards an inevitable showdown. It doesn’t help the girls already pastiche imaginary love-letters between Williams’ querulous sometime responsive Brodie and Lowther. In this version though there seems little chemistry between her and Wright’s upright shy music master. It makes the girls’ imaginings all the more cruel: ‘Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.’ The real sizzle’s between Brodie and Macliam’s vigorous Lloyd.


It’s the very crisis provoked by the two men’s circling round Brodie that propels her to a desperate act of recommendation. Plain Joyce as she is now keenly follows her Republican Communist brother’s progress in the Spanish Civil War, and Franco-loving Brodie bizarrely recruits her as other girls drop away. Here though, Coughlan’s clear-headed statement leaves us in no doubt as to her preference for the Republicans. That she might run away to join Franco’s Nationalists is blurred.


The memorial’s a beautifully wrought set piece, Tritschler’s music sung by the cast with bells following antiphonally. Morison’s last flashback for the Journalist discovers a pale ailing Brodie in 1946 served by a rich tea trolley. Harrower strips away the obvious drama at a ten-years’ reunion. ‘It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due’ Sandy concludes. Resisting predetermined lives, Sandy’s opted for her brief lover Lloyd’s religion, it seems, as atonement not just for Brodie, but someone else too. The end’s very different to anything previously, fitting in its pathos.


Williams makes of the unknowable Brodie a map of impulse, a net of consequences where her actions seem inevitable. Morison’s Sandy is icily passionate, a stiletto of stares, stillness and sudden incisive bursts. Whereas Le Touzel’s careful observations too reveal things we didn’t know she knew, Wright’s Lowther is perpetually inarticulate about what matters to him beyond Vaughan Williams – allowing Williams to flutter her hands at the thought of The Lark Ascending. Macliam’s Lloyd becomes ever more emphatic with a rogue brogue. Where Coughlan and Hindle are confined to the outer limits by smarter roles, Coughlan in particular seizes on the chance Harrower gives to develop her wheedling earlier self into someone too good for the dumb act she’s destined for. Young’s notable for confident clean delivery. Wilson, already strong in such recent roles as the Donmar’s The Lady From the Sea last year, and the demanding central one in Love Me Now, is just a little underused here, but that goes with her role.


It’s not just Harrower’s fleet dispatch that makes this remarkable, but the way in which his moral binaries and added guilt-patterning makes sense of the two central protagonists. It’s not shorter than before, but dare one say it, somehow Sparkier, conveying the author’s economy in a sinewy morality tale.