‘It’s someone that doesn’t conform to normal teacher standards; it’s someone with a spark. See, Muriel Spark!’: Interview with Rona Morison on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Eccentric Teachers
On a gloriously warm day and over a white-chocolate Magnum and Fruit Pastel ice lolly Anthony Walker-Cook spoke with Rona Morison about her role as Sandy in the Donmar Warehouse’s adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Before the interview with Rona has even begun she’s talking of some of the challenges of tackling this play led by such a difficult character: ‘It’s such an iconic role, so I think it’s been tricky for Lia [Williams] not to compare herself too much to Maggie Smith or Fiona Shaw, but she’s done a great job. It’s a different adaptation, it’s quite dark. A few people, especially parents, have said they’re unsure what type of teacher they would want their child to have: Miss Mackay or Miss Brodie. You can see the positive and negative sides of both.’ Rona’s character Sandy is one of the Brodie set, a group of girls chosen by their teacher, the titular Miss Jean Brodie and treading this careful line between making Miss Brodie likeable and distant is one that Williams does incredibly well.
Miss Brodie’s story is one that is firmly within a cultural scheme of reference: her girls are the ‘crème-de-la-crème’ and Brodie herself stands as a symbol of slightly eccentric but evocative teachers that we can all remember. Rona has had one of her old teachers in mind since the beginning. ‘I had a teacher who I wasn’t obsessed with, but I was mesmerised by her. She had a very attractive personality, but it was also how she put herself across: her aura was fascinating. I was the same age (between primary and secondary school) and at a small, private school. I did have this feeling of just being in awe of her. It’s weird because it’s not sexual but it also is: you don’t fancy them but it’s complete admiration for them, wanting to spend all your time with them both outside and inside the classroom. And you don’t even know their first name! It is someone that doesn’t conform to normal teacher standards; it’s someone with a spark. See Muriel Spark! I can still see an image of them in my head.’ Though this production uses a script adapted by David Harrower, Rona still turned to Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel at the beginning of the rehearsal process: ‘It’s a small book and I’d forgotten how slim it is, but because that school environment is so familiar you can get into it quite quickly. Everyone loves plays about schools. What David has done really well is paying a respect to Spark. He has kept the elements of all the characters and made them three-dimensional. One of the problems is that some characters are quite small in the book. David has taken the lines that they do have and given them drive and made them all rounded characters.’
Harrower’s production uses the frame of Sandy telling her recollections of Miss Brodie to a reporter the day before she takes a vow of silence and joins a convent. Throughout the play Rona shifts between being an eleven, fifteen and twenty-year old version of her character, which presented some challenges at the beginning. ‘I think at the start we were quite conscious of playing children: we’re not that age and I switch around a bit. I think we found that hard at the start. What was surprising was if you let yourself do that then the words do enough. You don’t need to put the dynamic of being children on top of that. Lia has made it easier for us since she is Miss Brodie for me and it made our job easier as actors. We watched ‘Seven Up’, when they track people across their lives. It was slightly later than when Brodie is set, but the children started at seven and often went to private and boarding schools, and they just talk like adults, as if an adult is stuck in a child’s body. It can be difficult for us not to put today’s mind on the show. Things were stricter, and children had more of a mindset of adults in a weird way. Their etiquette was much better than ours now. David’s writing makes it so much easier but when I was first cast I was worried.’
The period between fifteen and twenty-eight is, by nature, an incredibly formative and essential time when children break away from their parents and become individuals. What does Rona think Sally did during that period to become her own woman? ‘Well, firstly, there’s the war, that small thing, and she was obviously very intellectual and chooses to go to Oxford. It was the first year women were accepted to study Psychology at the university and Oxford was just opening to women. When she returns to Edinburgh it is just before her book is published after she completed a PhD, I think she’s coming to show Brodie the book and get her feedback. But when she sees Brodie will never be happy with her she doesn’t show the book. There’s no other place for her and she can’t be happy and she can feel herself becoming Miss Brodie.’ Sandy keeps a small pocket notebook with her and is constantly writing stories about her teacher, sometimes with Nicola Coughlan’s Joyce Emily. Why does Brodie have such a strong presence in Sandy’s imaginative mind? ‘She’s always written stories and she’s interested in how people interact. Brodie brings out a different aspect of a teacher and the girls are not sure how to react to her from her first lesson. She’s romantic and flamboyant and doesn’t hide her flirtation between the teachers, which is so amazing. Sandy can create the stories easily. When Brodie mentions her fiancé Hugh, Sandy’s mind goes running. The notebook creates Sandy’s backstory: it’s like her mobile phone that she’s always on since she moved a lot and doesn’t have many friends.’
Summarising The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie into one word, Rona points out the universal nature of the play: ‘I would say, ‘memory’. It’s a memory play for the audience since they think about their own teachers; but it is also Sandy’s memory play: these scenes are from what Sandy remembers: they could be made up! It takes me back. It’s like a memory box.’ With this in mind, when asked what questions Jean Brodie is trying to ask, Rona highlights another key aspect of the play: ‘it’s difficult not think of it with a modern mind. Some people think of it as a play about grooming. It’s not about that. I think the main questions it brings up are about who we put out faith into when we are younger and how much we let them become part of our lives. I suppose it’s also about societies – the society of Edinburgh and the society within a public school – and how we relate to those figures and at what point should our own mind learn to say not to someone. But that’s making Brodie sound quite evil, which I don’t think she is. It brings up the question of who you can rely on. From Sandy’s point of view, it’s a question of knowing when to let go of the past.’
But it’s not all difficult questions. When asked which of the other Brodie-set members she would like to portray, Rona’s answer is clear: ‘Mary McGregor is played so wonderfully by Emma Hindle. We all had those slightly more stupid students in our classrooms, but also loved them. In the book she’s just horribly thick and Spark is just slamming her down. She’s much more defined here.’ When asked what’s the best thing she’s seen on stage this year, we’re agreed that Nine Night at the National Theatre was a wonderful play both for its content and how it affected audiences: ‘Nine Night at the National Theatre was great, but mainly because the audience was so alive. I think it was amazing and it’s a boundary we need to keep breaking. It was so refreshing to enjoy the play with an almost ‘call and response’ interaction. The play itself was also brilliant so I’m glad it’s transferring.’ As for missed opportunities, Yerma at the Young Vic is the one that got away.
Why, then, does the mythos of Miss Brodie continue to perpetuate fifty years after the novel was first published? ‘Phrases like ‘crème-de-la-crème’ and ‘Brodie set’ are easily used now; they’re short and precise and easily remembered. It also conjures a character when you say them and you know it’s her when you say them.’ Depicting a mesmeric teacher and students only too ready to listen, this production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is not to be missed.
Rona can be seen as Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse until 28th July, 2018. Many thanks to her for agreeing to chat and to the Jo Allan PR team for organising.
Feature photograph: Manuel Harlan