small planets

Commentaries on London theatre by Dartmouth students, Summer 2018

Reflections on the London theater scene: sixteen small planets

This blog includes a series of reflections on productions attended by the wonderful Dartmouth students on the Foreign Study Program in London during the summer of 2018.  The posts below include reflections on a wide range of styles and genres: the immersive Sounds & Sorcery at the Vaults, a Spanish-language adaptation of Carmen, a site-specific work at the Tower of London, the bloody Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh, Othello at the Globe, the new plays One for Sorrow at Royal Court Upstairs and Julie at the National, among many others. These sixteen postings reflect only a percentage of the many productions that the students attended during those nine intense weeks. The concept of “small planets” is drawn from Elinor Fuchs’s influential essay on dramatic criticism, “Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play.”

Immersion and Theater at Sounds and Sorcery

I entered into the first room of Sounds and Sorcery at The Vaults unsure what to expect, but was delighted to see the interesting first step in the experience—projections of human outlines on the ceiling above circular cushioned furniture communicated wordlessly that we were supposed to lay on our backs and watch a projection on the ceiling. Settling in wearing my personal headphones I waited for the visual experience to begin. Unfortunately, the actual animation presented along with the music was less exciting than the experience of entering the space; a series of musical instruments spun, grew, shrank, and transformed in a symmetrical circular projection on the ceiling that felt oddly representational and continued to a point where I began to feel bored.

While further sections of the “immersive music concert experience” were more engaging, this beginning predicted the rest of my experience in The Vaults. I was intermittently extremely engaged and slightly disappointed with different sections of the varied experience. I found it to be an interesting exploration of the possibilities of immersion, if one that could have stood to lean into immersion more for a better result.

The design of the spaces on the whole was quite beautiful, and it was a joy to explore these large areas and see what had been done with set, props, and light to create a world to go along with the music of each section, inspired by the animation of Fantasia. Exploring these areas was a lovely experience, and I especially enjoyed when I got glances of the actual form of The Vaults themselves and how the design worked with this found space. However, I did not realize until almost half-way through my night that there were intended start times for the ideal experience of a narrative with the music in each room, communicated through somewhat confusing light-up clocks in the hallways. The beginning instructions could perhaps have done better to inform the audience of this, and I was a bit disappointed to realize I may have missed some of the intended experience. However, once I realized this it was delightful to see how changes in light along with the music really could create a narrative along with the music in rooms such as The Rite of Spring.

As far as the “theater” aspect of immersive theater in Sounds and Sorcery, I would have loved a little more. As one of my classmates noted, this felt less like immersive theater and more like wandering through beautiful spaces to find proscenium theater. The sections with performers all were surprisingly traditional in format, with separate audience and performer space as well as quite specific time schedules. I enjoyed the performances, but they left me wondering why these were the only places with human performers in the experience. Dance or movement by performers scattered throughout the spaces really could have brought to life the immersive theatrical experience of the evening. Leaving these beautifully designed immersive spaces empty of performers felt like a bit of a waste.

On the whole, the set design was the strongest and most compelling aspect of the experience. The very ending was absolutely beautiful. After a slightly disappointing projection to music on a scrim, and a jarring voice telling me to take off my headphones, I watched a beautiful forest with hanging paper lanterns slowly appear through the scrim. At first I was unsure if I was looking at another projection, but as the sounds of beautiful choral singing grew in volume and harmony throughout the space I saw the depth of the built environment and the scrim lifted in the middle, revealing a path to walk through. The joy of Sounds and Sorcery lay in getting to explore these beautifully designed and lit spaces along with beautiful music, and this ending was a wonderful example of this. I just wish a little more theater was sprinkled throughout these spaces to bring the experience to the next level.

Carmen: Old Take on an Older Story

Carmen, thriving when set in countries on edge, is
Always “subversive,” always “defiant,” but also
Really just an antiquated trope of humanity.
Men solving problems with fists and pistols, but
Everything’s fine ‘cause they dance phenomenally.
New adaptation, same old story:
 
Lascivious, lustful Carmen seduces
A naive yet violent Don Jose, who kills her in the end.
 
Classically misogynist, but perhaps
Understandably so?
Brings operatic melodrama back to center stage,
A classic, as in –
Not able to function in the present day.
A difficult night at the theatre.
 
“Bizet and Hammerstein get a Cuban makeover,” reads The Guardian’s review of Carmen la Cubana, the latest iteration of the classic story about the subversive and defiant woman of the same name. Carmen’s story, begun as a novella by Prosper Merimee, transformed into the 1895 opera by Georges Bizet, a staged theatrical production by Oscar Hammerstein II in 1943, and finally a film in 1954. The setting of each of these adaptations has changed over time, but the central narrative remains the same: a sensual, much-desired woman playing an integral part in the downfall of a seemingly innocent and lovelorn soldier, Don Jose.
With orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton, In The Heights), and a cast and onstage band made up entirely of artists of color, my bar was set tremendously high. What ended up gracing the stage was a piecemeal representation of the lascivious woman trope, riddled with transphobic and misogynist representations of humanity – at least by today’s standards. The story ran along so many tangential storylines and male-dominated incidents of violence that by the time Don Jose killed Carmen, I was neither surprised nor particularly moved.
What was the purpose then? Enter: Devil’s Advocate. The production is not particularly forthcoming on any subject and is, if anything, wildly problematic in its depictions of gender hierarchies and relationships. In a world of theater evolving to hold the mirror up to the current status of the world, this play seems too easy to detach from, as it seems, perhaps… unrealistic? But, the benefit of this is being able to see the piece as an operatic work of melodrama, as it was initially intended to be in former stage adaptations. Perhaps the sparse and simplistic translations were meant to center the audience’s attention on the beautiful moments of movement onstage. By not keeping your eyes glued to the monitors, you could see the magnificent displays of dancing and light. To its credit, Carmen was the first show we’ve seen this summer with only performers of color, and its commitment to using only Spanish is an empowering and applause-worthy element. To be so well-received in a country that primarily speaks English says wonders for the production, even if our critical Dartmouth eyes were left desiring so much more. As a revival of an old classic, it is an accurate portrayal of the story. As a performance in the twenty-first century? This one’s a bit of a [mambo] and miss.

East Wall: Why didn’t they storm the tower?

East Wall: Storm the Tower, a site-specific work at the Tower of London, has been in the works for approximately four years. The piece was organized, curated, and ultimately directed by Hofesh Shechter. Shechter teamed up with the East London Dance Company to organize East Wall, and worked to find choreographers to collaborate with on the project. The final work was choreographed by three choreographers: Becky Namgauds, Duwane Taylor, James Finnemore and Joseph Toonga.
East Wall had many successes, including giving an amazing voice to four relatively new choreographers, exploring the use of live music for dance, and incorporating professional and amateur dancers alike into the production. Unfortunately, it failed to fully realize its sub-title of “Storm the Tower.” The piece was originally billed as being set inside the tower proper; even the trailer has dancers running through the tower grounds and interacting with (or purposefully ignoring) the beefeaters. The final product, however, was relegated to the tower’s moat, with only two direct points of contact to the tower itself. The first was the use of up-lighting on the tower wall directly behind the stage, and the second was when the percussion section from The Band of the Irish Guard appeared on the walls above the stage. Regretfully, neither of these interactions proved very successful and left the tower seeming quite un-stormed.

The up lighting was simply not a good use of the wall, both on artistic and technical level. Technically, the units appeared underpowered, and the sun was also too bright. They provided a nice texturing of the wall when they were close to an incandescent “no-color” hue, but when they changed to a more saturated color, they became a weak line of hazy coloring. The beam pattern of individual lamps also became visible, neither of which felt like they achieved the highest potential of visual impact. These strips of color also clashed with the beautiful simplicity of an all black stage lined with booms of sidelight, which showcased the power of the dancers and costumes. The wall of the tower absolutely should have been lit in order to pull it into the world of the show, but it should have been done with something closer to no-color lights, to really allow it to be in visual conversation with the rest of the piece.

The second, more upsetting, failed storming of the tower came when the Irish Guard percussion section appeared high above the stage on the walls of the tower. Prior to this, the performance had not directly interacted with the tower itself. Obviously, I would have preferred a bit more interaction on the whole (it would have been AMAZING to set this truly inside the walls) but installation and site specific work is full of trade offs. Setting the piece in the moat offered numerous benefits, including vast stage space, lots of pre-existing seating on the terraced walkway, plenty of space for additional constructed seating and food stands. It allowed for an impressive number of great sight lines and quality audio coverage, not something to be taken for granted at site specific work. It also boasted a great view of the tower for the backdrop. The moat also carries all the clout of the Tower of London and the Historic Royal Palaces organization. The setting thus signaled their acceptance and approval of this project, an important and easily overlooked statement. I was thus happy to accept the rule that the show would occur in the moat. All that changed when the Irish Guard appeared on the walls. Suddenly the Tower was in the picture, and the dancers were not being allowed in. The only people who were allowed to be on the tower proper were the people who had always been allowed there: the British army. This image seems to be in direct conflict with the published message of East Wall, where the idea was to give voice and agency to groups often excluded from classic London narratives. While the ability to have anybody on the tower wall was interesting and exciting, it is important to ensure every stage picture contributes to the intended impact of the piece, which this moment failed to do.

East Wall: Storm the Tower Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOHoDCeBDjQ

East Wall Warmup (The 2016 piece organized as a trial and proof of concept) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_SwssfmpAY

East Wall: Journey to the Tower (Start of a video series detailing the process of making East Wall) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qajES5djgo

Lieutenant of Inishmore, or Catus Andronicus: A Comedy

One thing that every review of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore contains is a comment about Titus Andronicus.

“McDonagh’s real gift […] is for pushing a situation to its most brutal extreme, and being funny with it. This is Titus Andronicus played for laughs,” writes Michael Billington for The Guardian.

“McDonagh’s play pushes its mockery of them to gleeful extremes and Grandage’s robust, zestful production is wonderfully on its wavelength as it escalates into a splatter-fest that makes Titus Andronicus look like Mary Poppins,” writes Paul Taylor for The Independent.

(“[Lieutenant makes Titus Andronicus] look like the proverbial vicarage tea party,” Michael Billington also wrote way back in 2001 for the original RSC production, so evidently this a fairly standard phenomenon in Lieutenant reviews.)

This should give you some idea about the volume of fake blood that will be pooling onstage by the time we get to curtain call (and the amount of grey hair an ASM is gaining somewhere in the wings). Lieutenant is certainly not a show for the faint of heart and queasy of stomach. But does all this gore and violence serve a constructive purpose in the conversation about the absurdity of terrorism that McDonagh seems to intend for this play to provoke? Or does it just create a grisly spectacle to serve as a backdrop for McDonagh’s witty dialogue so audiences can enjoy a “fun” night at the theatre?

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a dark comedy about the bloodshed and violence during the Troubles in Ireland. After the murder of his cat, Wee Thomas, Mad Padraic (a man deemed “too crazy” for the IRA) returns home to Inishmore to exact his bloodthirsty revenge on those responsible for the demise of his best friend, regardless of familial ties (and, indeed, actual innocence in the matter). The arrival of three INLA men attempting to assassinate Padraic (and actually responsible for the murder of Wee Thomas) triggers the beginning of a bloodbath that ends with half the characters, Padraic included, dead onstage (some in multiple pieces). It is only after this that Wee Thomas, whole and hale, arrives in the window and we realize the INLA killed the wrong black cat. “All this terror has been for absolutely nothing,” as one character remarks.

It’s a particularly poignant moment, the realization that all this violence has been for nothing. If everyone had just calmed down and tried to communicate with each other, none of this absurd cruelty towards other humans (and cats) would have happened. It’s a powerful message that McDonagh is trying to convey, and one that is just as relevant to the world today as it was in 1994 when Lieutenant was written, or 2001 when it was first performed.

But Lieutenant runs the same risk as Titus – it’s easy to focus on the spectacle and lose the moral (though much of the moral lies in the spectacle). And while masterfully written, beautifully designed, meticulously executed, and generally well-acted, I’m afraid this Lieutenant stands on the brink of falling into the Titus trap by putting the audience at a safe distance behind the protection of laughter and the proscenium arch. If you come to the Noel Coward Theatre looking for a farcical critique of terrorism and violence, it’s certainly there to be found and engaged with in Lieutenant. However, if you’re here because you missed the Globe’s last production of Titus and are looking for a fun night out with friends, it could be very easy to miss this critique amidst the laughter and the spectacle.

Iag-no: An Uncompelling Villain Leads to an Uncompelling Story

“And what’s he then to say that I play the villain?” Othello, Act 2 Scene 3

The above line begins what is perhaps one of the most famous speeches done by Shakespeare’s most notorious villain- indeed a character often espoused as one of the evilest villains in English literature. In this soliloquy, Iago lays bare to the audience how exactly he plans to bring about the downfall of Othello- using no less than the man’s own wife and most trusted lieutenant to do it. Indeed, at the root of Iago’s motives for causing the death of nearly every other major character in the play simply lies the fact that he doesn’t believe Othello the Moor should have power over him. This dastardly character has seen many actors step up to play him over the centuries with Sir Mark Rylance taking up the mantle most recently in the Globe’s most recent production of Othello. Given the media hype surrounding this production and Rylance’s reputation, I was expecting a stunning portrayal of this most infamous character.

Unfortunately, in his effort to prove to the audience how effortlessly he knows Shakespeare, he leaves much of what makes Iago, Iago behind. Instead, we were left with a pale shadow of this infamous character that left me both restless and wondering what exactly his motives were. This issue was further amplified throughout the performance as it is Iago’s schemes and actions that are the driving force of the story. Simply put, without Iago’s villainy, Othello is not a tragedy and the thoroughly defanged Iago that Rylance portrays leaves the audience wondering why Iago would bother in the first place.

“I know not if’t be true; But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety.” Othello, Act 1 Scene 3

Iago is cruel, cunning, heartless, and willing to ruin the lives of many who trust him over the flimsiest of reasons. He kills Roderigo and his own wife to keep them from revealing his involvement, maims Cassio, and fans Othello’s jealousy until he is driven to kill Desdemona, the guilt of which then leads Othello to kill himself as well. “Trustworthy” Iago is solely responsible for the pile of bodies left onstage at the end of the play and language, until the very end, is his sole weapon of accomplishing this bloodbath. In this light, the drastic cuts made to many of Iago’s lines and speeches are almost criminal in the way that they further reduce an already underwhelming portrayal. Iago lays bare the depth of his plans and why he feels he must go through with them in many soliloquys to the audience. While it is downright encouraged to cut plays as lengthy as Othello down, I can’t help but feel the cuts chosen in the Globe’s latest production leave out much of the art that is Iago. His carefully constructed plans are never really spoken of, which leads most of his actions to feel opportunistic and seized in the moment instead of the carefully pre-meditated Machiavellian schemes that they are. Iago’s motivations are stripped down to the bare bones in such a way that it is no longer clear why he takes many of the actions that he does other than to perhaps prove that he is an unmitigated bastard that simply does not care what happens as long as he is alive at the end of it.

Iago, as Shakespeare first wrote him, is a villain that rings unmatched through time- one that still today is used as a litmus test with which to measure all other villains. Quite disappointingly, the Globe’s latest Iago doesn’t live up to this legacy and, because of this, leaves the production in many ways quite unremarkable as the piece is missing the villain that drives it all.

“Men should be what they seem, Or those that be not, would they might seem none!” Othello, Act 3 Scene 3

Physicalized Feelings in One For Sorrow

In the world of One For Sorrow, human feelings are strong, they are confusing, they are dangerous, and they are overwhelming. They overwhelm the world. They may destroy it. And this world feels eerily like our own.

I watched Imogen attempt to come to grips with all the contradictions in this terrible world where a terrorist attack has caused an unknown but large number of deaths including that of her cousin. As I watched her reckon with her extreme feelings of anger and of pacifism and beliefs that people don’t deserve these tragedies and that we do, I watched tears falling down her face as all this contradiction and tension took over her body. And I felt myself begin to cry as I felt the horror of the situation, and I felt friends and fellow audience members begin to weep around me, as we all witnessed this horrible moment of human sorrow.

And then I saw something that shocked me. A few dark lines had somehow appeared on the off-white walls of the family living room on stage, and from where one line hit the stage, a significant, three-dimensional stream of water was slowly inching its way downstage, staining the off-white floor as it went. I sat captivated as I watched this water move and listened to Imogen speak of aftermaths and trying to hold evil close and make it good, and her need for connection in this terrible world. As I felt the sorrow in this character and myself and those around me, I watched the set itself weep. It was a compelling and shocking technical effect, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend some time throughout the second act of the play watching the effect and trying to figure out how it was being achieved—which may have distracted me a bit from the story. However, it also felt like a beautiful physicalization of the emotional world of the play’s characters. In the play’s script, the stage directions at the top of Act 2 say “A bomb has exploded in the house but JOHN and the family seem unaware.” This could, I suppose, be understood either literally as a direction for a change in the setting or perhaps as something metaphorical coloring the action of the act. Perhaps this is the text that inspired this design choice, but the “crying” walls seem like a more unique and powerful way to make tangible the changes happening in the second act. The progression throughout was a beautiful effect; as the family’s situation moved further and further into abject sorrow, chaos, and violence, the stains on the walls multiplied and intensified, but so slowly and subtly that I often found myself shocked to realize the progress that had been made without me noticing while I watched the onstage action. At at least one moment water began to drip from holes in pipes at the top of the doorless doorways in the walls, which was a further powerful physical image, though I wish the lighting had made this a bit more visible, or characters had been closer to or interacted with it. At another moment, the family’s father Bill threw down two glasses of wine at the ground in anger and left dark splash marks where the water stained the floor, leaving a powerful visual echo of this act of rage in a time of sorrow on stage for the rest of the play.

I wouldn’t say One For Sorrow was a perfect piece of theater, but it was an enthralling, affecting, and visceral one that I expect to be thinking about for quite a while. And this production’s use of stylistic design elements and innovative effects, coupled with its biting, contemporary hyper-naturalistic dialogue, heightened the work of the play more than a naturalistic setting would have. Their play with breaks from naturalism was effective elsewhere in the design. Though I found the moment of loud, clearly recorded magpie chattering near the end a bit too jarring and not especially effective, when Emma screamed a heart wrenching scream of anguish at the end of act 1 and her scream played again almost like a skipping record, I found myself hit with a palpable punch of emotion. Sometimes what happens in the world is too big, too sad to feel real. While we should be reminded that horrible things do happen in the “real world,” theater that stretches from naturalism into something more expressionistic can create for the audience the subjective experience of living such horrible events that never truly look or feel like “real life.”

This is an adaptation.

It’s not actually an adaptation.

I don’t know how to write an adaptation.

I don’t know if it’s possible to adapt a play to a blog post. Especially not a play adapted from a play.

I also don’t really know what an adaptation is.

Julie, by Polly Stenham is actually an adaptation. I think. In writing this play, Stenham was striving to adapt the seminal, naturalistic play Miss Julie by August Strindberg. Strindberg, the acclaimed “father of Swedish Naturalism,” wrote Miss Julie in 1888 in Swedish. In Strindberg’s play, a story of love, sex, power, gender and class unfolds in real time onstage (and offstage) through symbolic Naturalism as Julie grapples with choices about her life in a patriarchal world and Jean uses sex and manipulation to gain personal power in a classist world.

Polly Stenham’s play is not that at all. Except that it is a little. While the general structure of the play mirrors its 130-year-old twin, Julie attempts to explore very different themes and questions. Where Strindberg interrogates class divisions, Stenham set out (and arguably failed) to illustrate issues of race and immigration in relation to economic disparity and dependency. This staging places all of the offstage sexual events center stage for a PG audience, asking the audience to believe in a consummation that they witnessed not happening. Stenham expanded the empty role of the absent father into central character motivation rather than merely circumstantial opportunity, and expanded the third character present – the other domestic worker Kristin – into a consequence and an obstacle rather than fodder for character exposition. These two characters, both rather negligible in Strindberg’s play, have groundbreaking implications for the other two characters. If, to an actor, a character is only action, motivation/objective, and obstacle, then the expansion of Kristin and the father rendered both Julie and Jean unrecognizable characters.

The main difference between these two plays, however, is the central exploration of power. In Strindberg’s play, Jean uses sex to gain power over Julie and therefore over his class-based oppressor. He demonstrates this power by decapitating Julie beloved pet bird right in front of her and coaxing her into her ultimate suicide. This is a play about power between one man and one woman. In Stenham’s play, however Jean never gains power over Julie (who instead seems to be constantly under the influence of alcohol, narcotics, and cocaine). In this play, Julie kills both her own bird and herself, without any suggestion or manipulation from Jean. This is not a play about power. It is a play about sex and trauma. It is trying to be a play about race, class, immigration, and economic frivolity. It is not a play about interpersonal power and it is not trying to be.

Is this an adaptation? Stenham’s play struggles with very different questions from Strindberg’s and poses very different themes and characters and circumstances. It has the same structural make up and the same ultimate act of tragedy (and the same names), but this is an all-together different play. Does that make it an adaptation? I’m not sure. I don’t really know what an adaptation is.

Someone once said (many someones, many onces) that there are only 12 stories in the whole world. Does that mean that every play, every book, every song, every poem is an adaptation? Is all storytelling adaptation? Are all plays just adaptations of life? That’s the point of Strindberg’s beloved Naturalism, is it not? To hold a mirror up to life and adapt it.

The Wildest Things of All: Children’s Stories and A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls was a children’s story. It is about a child. It was conceived and written for children (at least in its book form). But the Old Vic’s current production, directed by Sally Cookson, involves no children, and the audience, at least in my memory of it, consisted mostly of adults. This is not necessarily a criticism, simply an observation. I’ve been grappling with how to talk about this play – which I really enjoyed – and its power, and I keep coming back to thinking about children’s stories. Art, particularly theater, created for children is generally thought of as simplistic and sentimental. Examples I can think of are Disney adaptations such as The Lion King or The Little Mermaid, or British pantomime. While these works all have their own value, they also entail a degree of capitalistic spectacle that reinforces theatrical convention and thematic safety. A Monster Calls certainly does not fall into this category. Its embrace of its own theatricality and its willingness to engage with violence, elements of horror, pain, and shame make it something stranger and lovelier.

Western childhood is arguably a relatively recent construct within the arc of human history. As child labor laws began to take effect after the Industrial Revolution, the “value” of children shifted from the economic realm to the emotional realm, and was cemented there by sentimentalism. I point this out to illustrate that the way we conceive of children’s fragility and capacity is not fixed. There is no reason that complex art cannot be made for children, and yet particularly in the theater, it is a rarity.

However, A Monster Calls isn’t necessarily for children. On the Old Vic’s website there is a warning which reads “A Monster Calls is a wonderful story which, although there is a strong magical element, is primarily for a young adult and adult audience due to some themes that younger audiences may find upsetting.” But, through out the play, there were moments of explicit exposition and dialogue, such as the “morals” of the first two tales, which felt geared towards a younger audience. It is easy to say these moments detract from the flow of the whole of the performance, and I initially found them aesthetically off-putting. But upon reflection, this commitment to clarity ultimately resulted in the most powerful moment of the play: when the monster tells Connor very gently and simply that the truth of his thoughts cannot be bad, and he must speak them in order to be free.

Which brings me back to the theater full of adults. I suppose the question I’ve been wrestling with is whether or not Sally Cookson’s production remains a children’s story. And if it does, what the purpose is in telling a children’s story for adults. Why is it important for older people to bear witness to these worst moments of a thirteen year old’s life? Is there some harm done by taking this story away from the children for whom it was conceived? I’m not really sure, but the best answer I have at the moment has to do with that commitment to clarity. Despite years of cultivating an appreciation for a message that is ‘shown’, I started to sob only when the monster told me something, like a child. There is a power in directness that children’s stories don’t shy away from. My (mostly) adult self found it incredibly meaningful.

I still have many questions about the feasibility and ethics of telling a children’s story for adults, and children’s place in the theatre. But I am so grateful to have seen this production that honors childhood’s complexities and makes beauty of its language.

Brodie Vs. McKay: Religious Conflict Embodied at the Donmar

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse directed by Polly Findlay did not allow the audience to sit back, relax, and happily predict which characters they would be rooting for from start to finish. Jean Brodie, portrayed by Lia Williams, first appears on stage as the beloved and charismatic student-favorite teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. She sneaks her rebellious teaching methods behind the back of uptight Mrs. McKay, played by Sylvestra Le Touzel. However, the performances of Jean Brodie and Mrs. McKay in this particular production complicated the notion of straightforward characters and, instead, caused the audience to consistently question whether the story was centered around the right person. The acting styles of both actresses and contrasting design of both characters supported the religious conflict in the text to create a theatrical experience that constantly made the audience wonder why they might be rooting for the “high-strung one” by the bows.

While Miss Brodie begins the play telling quippy jokes and entertains her five young students with stories of her travels to Italy, Williams’ energy and charm is intoxicating. She is dawned in a bright red dress which perfectly complements her red hair and lipstick. She appears as the only bright color on the entire stage amongst the students’ dark uniforms and the entire gray set of the school. Williams portrays Brodie with a seductive lilt to her voice, which makes every one of her lines sound like a secret she’s letting you in on. It is tempting to immediately side with her, as the girls do. Mrs. McKay is painted as the enemy that Brodie must hide her whimsical ways from- she believes the girls should be learning the material that will be on their national school exams that Brodie has continually put on the back burner. Brodie believes that the classroom and the imagination should be intertwined, feeding into the free spirits of the children while McKay has a more traditional mindset. However, while it is initially easy to box these characters into the ‘fun’ character and the ‘strict’ character, subtle clues in the text make the audience rethink their possible first impressions of these seemingly foil characters.

At a moment in time between the World Wars, Miss Brodie speaks of her visits to Italy with the girls with reverence for Mussolini and Fascism as a potential way to solve issues of poverty in Edinburgh. Although this may be an initial red flag for some audience members, it is also safe to assume that Brodie did not have full knowledge of where Fascism and Nazism were heading. Later on, however, when one of her students, Sandy, is kissed by the art teacher, Brodie is upset because the art teacher made a lover of Sandy and not a different one of her students. Once it dawns on the audience that Brodie could possibly be setting up her underage students with faculty members of the school, the seemingly sunshiny impression we once had of her is now tainted. The elements of Williams’ performance that were once endearing become quite grating toward the end of the show. Her inability to adopt a serious tone of voice becomes infuriating, especially given the weighty topics she is tackling. By the end of the play, Brodie’s carefree and imaginative optimism toward her students becomes her downfall, as she convinces Joyce Emily to follow her brother to war- only allowing her to march to her own death.

However, the production dramatizes Brodie’s flaws and inability to initiate self-aware change in her behavior over the course of the play. In one of the most dramatic physical transformations on stage, we see Brodie dying as a frail cancer patient in the final scene. In what the audience would expect as a self-realization moment, Brodie is still blames all of her faults on the girls, while taking full responsibility for their successes. The production is able to demonstrate that a character can experience a complete physical arc, without experiencing any emotional growth throughout the play. Brodie begins and ends the play in the exact same way although physically she begins as a force of life and ends as someone who is deteriorating.

In contrast, Le Touzel paints Mckay as an uptight stereotype of a school principle who preaches slogans like “Safety First” while Brodie preaches “Goodness, Truth and Beauty.” However, given the result at the end of the play, McKay’s pragmatic approach does not seem out of place and is, conversely, her responsibility to keep the girls safe. McKay wants the girls to do as well in school as they possibly can, so that they can be self-sufficient. While Brodie’s vision of freedom for her students is pushing them into the arms of men that can take care of them, McKay underscores the importance of education to ensure that they never have to rely on a man to take care of them. Sure, McKay’s idea of school is less fun, but at the end of the day, she’s doing her job and all of her students may have stayed alive.

The stand off between Brodie and McKay reflects larger religious tension present in the play between Calvinism and Catholicism. The traditional McKay trying to absolve the young girls from sin and supporting the institution of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls personifies Calvinist beliefs. She sees Brodie as sexually liberated, lacking virtue and work ethic, all of which were concerns that Calvinists expressed about Catholic immigrants into Scotland. While Brodie is only expressly against Calvinism- her presence in the play aims to show the dichotomy and strain between the two faiths at the time in Edinburgh. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Findlay artfully questions the notion of honest and corrupt characters through her strong female leads in order to dramatize the flaws of seeing one particular faith as wholly virtuous or sinful.

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