It’s not just children of an impressionable age who are seduced by “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” the Jay Presson Allen play of Muriel Spark’s novel that has arrived “newly revised” (gone is the framing device of the interviewer) at the Royal National Theater. London hosted a separate production of this play only four years ago, but it’s little surprise that the modern theater’s best-known Edinburgh schoolmistress is back with us once again. Dramatically piecemeal though it is, the play both condemns and exalts a certain charisma that remains quintessentially of the theater, and one hardly need be as gullible as the doomed Mary MacGregor to respond to Jean Brodie, even as one is slightly awed and even frightened by her.
Brodie, indeed, could be placed on a spectrum of colorful, sometimes fierce eccentrics extending from Madame Arcati right through to Peter Shaffer’s extravagant Lettice Douffet, whose motto — “Enlarge! Enlighten! Enliven!” — could be a paraphrase of Brodie’s own.
The play is about casting a spell for which you then pay a price, and one only wishes Fiona Shaw, inheriting the role that won Zoe Caldwell a Tony and Maggie Smith an Oscar, were as mesmerizing as the part demands: Like Brodie herself, the play still beguiles, though it’s debatable on this occasion whether Shaw offers up the requisite narcissism run rampant of which students’ (not to mention an audience’s) crushes are made — and then crushed.
If anything, Shaw may be too ruthless a performer to play into the florid theatrics that have always given this play its somewhat campy juice. Speaking in an accent that sounds more Irish than Scottish, she resists the hyperbolic self-aggrandizement of Brodie’s credo, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she’s mine for life.”
Less readily fanatical than some occupants of the role, she bustles about like a warmer (and Celtic) 1930s-style Margaret Thatcher, extolling all things Italian, whether Giotto or Mussolini. In her enthusiasms, she turns a blind eye to the traitorousness that will undo her, as hinted at in a painterly early tableau that turns out to be far less comical than it first appears.
Despite a past tendency toward breast-beating, the performer here displays a newfound and vaguely kooky warmth, and she’s at her best capturing the absurdity of Brodie’s single-mindedness — swinging a golf club, for instance, as rapt student Sandy (a rather blank Susannah Wise) follows her every move.
Less convincing is an allure intended to be sufficiently sexual that it captivates not only a room full of young girls but two competing adult men: art master Teddy Lloyd (Nicholas Le Prevost) and the more prosaic Gordon Lowther, revealingly played by the excellent Adam Kotz as a man far more conventional than Brodie or he ever imagined.
What’s missing is the sheer weight of seduction that animates the play; for the first time ever, one is left wishing Shaw were more intense. (Admirers of her stage recitation of “The Waste Land” will thrill to her reading here of “The Lady of Shalott.”)
Some problematic performances aside (none of the girls is particularly good, and one or two are seriously amateurish), director Phyllida Lloyd’s production represents a formidable act of stage management as scenes swiftly propel Brodie and her charges around a vast gym of a set (by Su Huntley and Donna Muir, an able Anglo-Canadian team new to the theater) that can shift in an instant to a convent.
An onstage choir and Stephen Warbeck’s original score further heighten a staging rich in atmospherics. But all the swirling activity in the world can’t substitute for a lack of fire at the core of a “Brodie” that never quite manages to be what Brodie herself considers her girls — “la creme de la creme.”