Thursday, 6 August 2009

Influential Women

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, (Stagecraft)
Gryphon Theatre, August 5 – 15

I’ve never liked those inspirational teacher stories. Sure, we’ve all had one, but do they have to be so nauseating? Trudy White as the eponymous character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie doesn’t break the mould so much as shatter it and proves that influential educators are not always a good thing.

Miss Jean Brodie holidays in Italy so that she can revel in “goodness, truth and beauty”. She delights in art, language and architecture and wears flamboyant dresses that look like geology maps. She tells her ‘gels’ sad stories about her beau who fell in Flanders’ fields, and teaches them about Einstein, the benefits to the skin of cleansing cream, the love life of Charlotte Brontë, and God’s near Eastern counterpart, Allah.

Trudy White artfully captures her devious and manipulative character with a mischievous glance, a voluptuous shrug, or a twitch of her finger. Her machinations are intriguing as she plays her lovers against one another. Full of confidence, she commands the attentions of the philandering art teacher, Mr Lloyd (the ever-dependable Tom Rainbird, who handles the intimate moments with credible sensitivity) and the effete music teacher, Mr Lowther (Stephen Fearnley - in a kilt and a fine harried performance).

The seductive schemes are less alluring as she worms her way into her pupils’ affections. She calls them the “crème de la crème” and they are desperate to impress her in whatever way possible. When she is surrounded by the adoring and rapt students she is clearly elevated above them as a group, standing toe-to-toe only when she singles one out, with devastating consequences.

The girls, Sandy (Aisha Pachoud), Jenny (Gabrielle Stewart), Mary (Corinna Bennett) and Monica (Katrina Yelavich) are foils to her rapier wit, and she encourages them to develop their distinctive nature, which they all do very well. While they are typical teenagers, bullying and gossiping in the corridors, they each examine the nuances of their unique personality.

In her belief that humanities are the foundation of real life, she is thwarted by her nemesis, Miss Mackay, whose motto is “safety first” and prefers the children to be playing hockey and taking secretarial courses rather than visiting art galleries and moping about composing romances. She warns Miss Brodie that “We are not a progressive school and do not encourage progressive attitudes.”

With her admiration for Stanley Baldwin and prim suits, Miss Mackay is beautifully portrayed by Deanne Graham who invests her with both lightness and depth rather than creating a harridan caricature as could easily be done. A little more projection would help, especially when she is speaking upstage, but on the whole her flinty demeanour with a hint of humour is ideal.

The contrast between these women is excellent as one exudes passion and vitality too strong to be contained within the walls of Marcia Blaine School for Girls, and the other attempts to steer the pupils with a firm and guiding hand. The struggle for the hearts and minds of the youngsters is compelling and when Miss Brodie asserts, “Give me a girl of an impressionable age and she is mine for life”, there is a frisson of foreboding as we question where does guardianship end and interference begin?

The story is told through a series of flashbacks as Sister Helena (Ingrid Sage) relates to Mr Perry (Graeme Carruthers) how much the teacher has influenced her. Miss Brodie is a puppeteer but when the strings are cut she looses control and visibly diminishes. She views her profession as a calling (“I am a teacher, first, last and always”), and refuses to be crucified by Miss Mackay and “the ignorant gossip of petty provincials”, but her self-sabotage leaves the audience with conflicting emotions.

Alan Burden’s insightful sound design incorporates arias from La Traviata, which swoop and soar above the scene changes. Director Leigh Cain ensures that these are delightful vignettes in themselves – besides being slick, they do not interrupt the action. On opening night a few lines were fluffed which stalled the pace towards the end, but the script stuffed full of witticisms is generally well-delivered.

The inspired set which combines naturalistic desks, blackboards and lockers with abstract spaces and designs indicates the confines of the educational system. Although Miss Brodie encourages the girls to “let your imaginations soar” there is nowhere for them to escape in the stifling morality of the school.

In the 1930s, she lectures, “This is the twentieth century – there are many outlets for women of intelligence.” Fortunately, this production proves there are theatrical roles for them too and it is great to see these powerful women commanding the stage – long may their prime continue!

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