Why the small stage is beautiful

Little theatres like the Donmar and Jermyn Street are important venues for attracting new audiences

Anne McElvoy

The Donmar Theatre in Covent Garden is a work of pure illogic. It seats just over 250 people, tickets are notoriously hard to come by and yet it showcases new approaches like Phyllida Law’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy, launched in the days when gender-bending was an exception not the rule, and it lures celluloid stars such as Tom Hiddleston to play a bloody Coriolanus, and Dominic West to move from his permanent posture as 21st-century rake to 18th-century equivalent.

Results can be uneven. West gave us one of the memorably awful performances on press night in Les Liasons Dangereuses by forgetting a good portion of the lines. But the ambition to combine glitz and seriousness has kept the Donmar in brisk business.

Something dramatic has happened offstage in Endell Street, however, occasioning the joint departures of Josie Rourke, its artistic director, and Kate Pakenham. The first all-female duo to head a premier-league theatre have, somewhat abruptly, moved on, with a crisp statement in June from the board announcing the hunt for a new artistic director.

The main dissatisfaction appears to be a lack of transferable hits, at a time when the Almeida is acting as a reliable pipeline from Islington to the West End and Broadway. Other studio theatres, notably the Young Vic, have found a niche appealing to young audiences, with irreverent takes on the classics and a younger bench of stars.

Rourke is a talented and engaging director, now applying herself to film, but the overall feeling is that she was better running her own projects than masterminding a grand slate of successful Donmar offerings with potential to expand the brand or its wider presence outside WC2. With a board headed by the commercially-savvy John Browne (ex-BP boss), the next contender had better have a failsafe recipe for spreading the Donmar’s joys wider.

The present era does, however, end on a high with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (which runs until July 28), a secure reworking of Muriel Spark’s Bildungsroman set in a genteel but seething girls’ school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. It has been adapted by David Harrower, who has brought fresh ambition to 19th- and early 20th-century works, ranging from Chekhov to Brecht and Pirandello. With the rangy Lia Williams in the role of the ambitious, capricious Miss Brodie, we are set fair for a pacey romp through rapid teenage emotional swings, naively dangerous attraction to Mussolini’s fascism, and stubborn fondness for teachers who break the rules and ignore the set-menu curriculum.
The ambiguity of Spark’s novel is brilliantly captured and Williams underlines her status as one of the strongest female leads on the stage, attractive and repellent in equal measure. If Maggie Smith’s defining presence in the film version hung over the opening scenes, Williams soon shakes off that association. Her Jean Brodie is a shimmering, breathy creature, whose Morningside “crème de la crème” accent is a seductive murmur, turning to a growl whenever her tribal enemy, the staid headmistress, looms into view. “Syntax finds no friend in Miss Mackay,” declares Jean.

Spark’s precise prose breathes throughout the production, with its darts of wit and pathos as the girls grow from adoration of Miss Brodie to more complex feelings of competition and defiance. This production foregrounds Sandy (Rona Morison) as the dangerously acute pupil who will finally turn on her mentor. But there is a stand-out performance from Nicola Coughlan as Joyce Emily, the fiercely needy child who becomes a vessel for Brodie’s misplaced romanticism and heads to the Spanish Civil War to join the Republicans. Brodie characteristically turns this narrative into one that suits her adulation for Mussolini.

The vicarious political intrigue of the 1930s is lightly handled — a bit too much so, since newcomers might need to be more firmly reminded of who’s who in Franco’s Spain and why the manipulation  of Joyce Emily to join the fight is so awful. This strand also carries dark new resonances at a time when Isis recuiters lure teenage girls to far-off wars in the name of liberation.

But the heart of this production is the emotional forcefield Brodie emits and her unsettling, intoxicating effect on all around her. Angus Wright is her spurned staffroom Romeo competing with a magnetic art teacher (Edward MacLiam), who is part inspiration, part sexual predator. With a nod to more PC times, the scene in which he turns his sexual attentions on Sandy is played as an involuntary seduction, rather than a game of two teasing halves. Over the fun, games and burgeoning tragedy looms Sylvestra Le Touzel as the dour headmistress. We are aware that the obsession with exam results and clunky geometric puzzles would have appealed to the present Department for Education’s fixation on science and technology over the arts.

The confluences are, however, lightly handled and we hold our breath as Brodie trills her final despairing r’s, dying alone and obsessed by which of her girls might finally have wielded the knife. Ironically, given the chat about the Donmar’s record, it’s a dead-cert transfer to the West End.

As we head towards the summer break, another reinterpretation of a great work looked to be shaping up nicely when I had a sneak peek at rehearsals of Bartlett Sher’s The King and I at the Palladium. Sher brought us Oslo, the thoughtful treatment of the doomed Israel-Palestinian accord, at the National, but is better known on Broadway for reinvigorating the great musicals and deft reworking of their dustier sexual and racial politics. With Ken Watanabe in the role of the grand Siamese leader and Kelli O’Hara as Deborah, the result should be a hot seat  in the revived Palladium. For a delve into the impact of more recent history, the Jermyn Street Theatre is establishing itself under its effervescent new director Tom Littler as a judicious selector of new work, often with an emphasis on trans-Atlantic themes. The Play about My Dad (until July 21) is  Boo Killebrew’s personal odyssey through Hurricane Katrina and a fraught relationship with  her father Larry, working in the disaster zone on the Gulf Coast as an emergency surgeon. It’s a timely  reminder that there is smart, new and well-priced theatre out there to lure  the next generation of audiences — and that our  small stages are the heartbeat of living theatreland.

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