Lia Williams gives a flat-out brilliant study in ambiguity in the title role of Muriel Spark‘s masterpiece
Heavyweight Scots playwright David Harrower has done a neat job of adapting his countrywoman Muriel Spark’s most famous novel for the stage.
But let’s just cut the preamble and talk about Lia Williams.
One of our most brilliant actors, at 53 she still isn’t really a household name, but is showing some definite signs of breakthrough momentum – anchoring two Almeida hits (‘Oresteia’ and ‘Mary Stuart’), netting good TV roles in ‘The Missing’, ‘The Crown’ (she played Wallis Simpson) and this year’s ‘Kiri’, and now mostly selling out the Donmar pretty much on the back of her own name.
She is incandescently good as Brodie, a breathily-accented 1930s Edinburgh primary school teacher whose life hovers somewhere between magnificence, absurdity and tragedy as she guides a generation of girls – headed by Rona Morison’s Sandy – through their formative years. The part requires terrific nuance, because the girls’ view of Brodie shifts with the passage of years: at first they are simply overawed by her confident otherness as she swans in magnificently and tells them to stow their maths exercise books and listen to her account of her holiday to Italy; several years later, her behaviour has not significantly changed, but the girls are beginning to think she might be less an inspiration, more a fraud.
Williams attacks this most ambivalent of roles with a conviction and intelligence that is, quite frankly, next-level stuff, that puts clear water between this and Maggie Smith’s more twinkly-eyed film version. Her Brodie is radiantly charismatic and often hilariously acerbic. But there’s a sense of real damage – a stutter here, a vacant stare there, a strange little lie – and a reckless lack of responsibility that the girls miss when young and become increasingly attuned to as they grow up. Conversely, though, they never quite understand how desperate and afraid she is, how much of her persona seems built up to distract from her gaping loneliness (even as she pushes away her gentle paramour Mr Lowther, sweetly played by Angus Wright). Williams takes us through all that, all at once. She never seems entirely trustworthy, but with her anarchic wit and chic good looks, she is undeniably attractive; when she weakly calls out for Sandy’s help at the end, it’s as piteous a sound as you’ll ever hear, and we feel for her, despite everything.
It is such a brilliant performance that rather transcends the script as an event, though Harrower does a solid, pacey job in articulating a classic, and certainly gives Williams plenty to work with.
Polly Findlay’s production is spare and uncluttered, pinging – memory-play-like – between a chronological journey through the girls’ school days and a point after, when a reporter interviews Sandy about these events as she prepares to enter a convent. But it’s a good canvas for Williams, and Lizzie Clachan’s set and Paul Arditti’s sound design does have one very nifty signature – bells are everywhere, and they ring out too, like school bells bleeding into church bells, evoking school and mass all at once.
There have been plenty of stage adaptations of ‘Jean Brodie’ before and I daresay there’ll be plenty in the future – but there’s only one Lia Williams, and she really is in her prime.