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Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie--With Cross-Sex Casting

Last night, we saw a sophomore production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. You may know the story--1932 Edinburgh, Scotland, where a charismatic teacher at a girls' school plays bait and switch between two "artistic" lovers, who are also teachers at the same girls' school. One, who teaches art and paints, is married (and Catholic, with five and by the end of the play, six children.). The other is a plain-spoken country music teacher who just wants to marry Jean and live an ordinary life.  Through the course of the play (based on Muriel Spark's novel) Jean flits between these two, while molding "her girls," a small set, each chosen for some special reason and formed to become what Miss Brodie thinks they should be, whether that's Sandy (Miss Brodie's confidant and spy), Jenny, (the painter's mistress-- "above common morals,") Monica (her "histrionics" presaging a life in the theater) or Mary McGregor, a wealthy, orphaned stuttering blank slate who Miss Brodie sends to join her brother fighting for dictator Franco--except said brother is fighting for the other side, so that when teenaged Mary's train car is bombed along the way, she dies fighting for the wrong side. 
(here is the extraordinary Jane Carr as Mary McGregor in the film.)

This, as I said, was a student production. We did not know that the casts would switch--and switch--and switch, mid-play, between several Brodies, Marys, Sandys, Jennys, etc. It was harder, probably, for my child, who had never seen the play before, though the Jeans all wore some part of their hair braided, (this worked less well for those with short-hair,) and they wore the same scarf around their necks, this latter involving some quick scarf throwing behind the back-stage curtains.

The school, an acting school, is short on male students, but all the female roles were eventually played by various races, and often by someone of another sexual orientation. I loved the way that it was matter-of-fact for these students when an African-American boy assayed Miss Jean Brodie (as a woman), or when Sandy switched from white, short and squat one moment to tall, rail-thin and African-American the next.  Nobody put on Edinburgh accents, or even tried though most of the Brodies leaned toward a British announcer's sound. One head-mistress had a West Indies lilt, though I think this belonged to the actress and not the role, and one of the Jennys sounded like an exchange student from China.

Though this is an arts school that does not require an audition--a Juilliard for Everyone--the students were more talented than not. I could see how several of them could bloom into prodigious performers.

And, as always, the piece itself was disturbing. Miss Jean Brodie isn't really the protagonist, is she? That's Sandy, Brodie's erstwhile "dependable" girl, the one who begins to see clearly the danger that Miss Brodie's manipulation of her students represents, as well as the terror that is Brodie's flagrant passion for fascism. Sandy first tries to be Miss Brodie's favorite, then to step into her shoes, becoming the painter's mistress as a teenager.

Sandy realizes the folly of trying to be Miss Brodie at the same time the school learns of Mary McGregor's death, painted in romantic terms by Miss Brodie. That is when Sandy "assassinates" Brodie by giving the headmistress enough dirt to undo even a tenured teacher.

And yet, it is too late for Sandy herself to be saved. She is too badly damaged by Miss Brodie, so badly that Sandy takes refuge in a nunnery, hiding even from herself.

I think that's what I disliked the most about the play when I saw it as a teenager. I always wanted Sandy to be saved. Perhaps that's why I prefer the marvelous film, with a radiant Maggie Smith, and a canny young Pamela Franklin as the well-matched antagonists. The film does away with the proscenium device of Sandy telling the story in an interview from her nunnery. Instead, it plunges us into the tiny, intensely fought-over fiefdom of Marcia Blaine School For Girls.

At the end of the film, I can imagine that, with time, Sandy comes to realize both her courage and her depths and that she grows up to become a woman who does not crouch behind a puppet theater of a girl's school, but strides around out there on the world's stage.

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