Monday, October 1, 2007


Photo: Poster of New Vic Theatre production, 2006 []

1. I believe this play is an adaptation of a novel...what can you tell us about its history?

This 1968 play is based on the 1961 novel by Muriel Spark, that was first published in the New Yorker. It was made into a movie starring Dame Maggie Smith in 1969. Spark based her portrayal of the eccentric, unforgettable, charismatic yet misguided Scottish private girls' schoolteacher on a teacher she had herself while growing up in 1930s Edinburgh. She described the impact of this teacher in this way: “What filled our minds with wonder and made [her] so memorable was the personal drama and poetry within which everything in her classroom happened” and certainly this is the Jean Brodie she creates in the novel, and in Jay Presson Allen's adaptation for the stage: Jean Brodie is devoted to her small group of selected young girls and her mission to make them “La crème de la creme”, to shape their very destinies. What eventually happens involves scandal, betrayal and disaster as Brodie becomes attracted to fascism and meddles in her students' lives in a way that we would now consider to be emotionally abusive and is clearly destructive, even with the best of intentions.

2. Most of us have seen Maggie Smith's Oscar-winning performance as Jean Brodie in the 1969 does this production's Jean Brodie compare to that well-known portrayal?

Director Wendy Merk has cast Lorene Cammiade (who has appeared in a number of previous Langham Court productions) in this hugely challenging role. I felt that Cammiade's performance was somewhat mixed, faring better in some scenes than others. She manages to capture Brodie's severity and single-mindedness quite well, and her ability to control and manipulate everything and everyone around her. But in Act Two, when everything starts to collapse, Cammiade keeps her stiff upper lip in place to the bitter end, and I wish she was able to show more of Brodie's vulnerability and the toll of the multiple betrayals that befall her. Also, Brodie is meant to be a scandalous free-thinker around premarital sex who has affairs with her teacher colleagues; unfortunately, this Jean Brodie felt very prim and proper to me, and I found it hard to believe that her sexuality drove some of her less-than-wise decisions. This is a Jean Brodie who is more Mary Poppins, I'm afraid, than the Cleopatra whom the character so admires.

3. What about the supporting do they do?

Another big challenge in this play are the many roles taken on by young girls, especially the key role of Sandy, Jean Brodie's ultimate betrayer and the narrator of the story. Here we have some nice performances from a group of young actors who play their roles with great conviction. However, I have to hope their performances soften a bit over the run, as I felt all of them tending toward overacting and pushing their emotions a bit too much. The whole cast is a bit guilty of face-front acting, where conversations are played facing out to the audience a bit too much, and I hope they can find their way into a more natural and connected place in the next two weeks. The male roles fare somewhat better in the show, with a nice performance especially from Christopher Harris as art teacher and Brodie's married lover, Teddy Lloyd. I also enjoyed Pippa Catling's portrayal of the head teacher and Brodie's antagonist Miss McKay, although I think there could be more fire between the two than is currently the case.

4. Langham Court often offers lovely set designs...what about this time?

Unfortunately, the set design by Tony Hubner was a bit of a disappointment. We are shown bare grey walls and an almost empty stage, save for the school desks on one side. This means there is a lot of trooping furniture on and off stage during blackouts between scenes, and this drags the pace of the show down quite a bit. For instance, the headmistress' desk was brought on and off a total of four times by my count; surely, Jean Brodie's desk on the other side of the stage could serve double-duty as Miss McKay's...audiences are quite capable of making this switch. Overall, the production would pick up pace with a lot more of beginning one scene immediately following another, even if we have to see actors and furniture moving on or off stage. In my view, this approach always beats looking at a dark stage and waiting for the lights to come up over and over again.

5. Any final thoughts about this play?

This play deserves its popularity in its portrayal of a dedicated yet deluded protagonist. As an educator myself, it is a cautionary tale about the powerful influences, both positive and negative, that teachers can have on their students. Also, given the dangers of fundamentalist thinking that continue to plague us today, Jean Brodie's attraction to fascism and its tragic consequences in the death of a student who tries to go to Spain and fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, are an uncomfortable reminder of the dangers in the viral spread of oppressive ideals. The play shows us the prime of Miss Jean Brodie and her fall from that self-defined prime that leaves her jobless and alone. A cautionary tale about self-delusions indeed.

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