There is nothing like a dame
Dame Muriel Spark’s strong women go head to head at this year’s festival, as Miss Jean Brodie returns to the stage and The Girls of Slender Means make their debut.
She may have died three years ago, but Dame Muriel Spark is definitely in her prime this Fringe, with two productions adapted from her books. Although widely considered one of Scotland’s greatest 20th century writers, Spark’s work has never had such a high profile before at the Festival in her home town, because until recently only one of her novels had been adapted for the stage.
But a new production of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, her most famous work, is now joined by a world premiere of a play based on The Girls Of Slender Means, making for an unexpected Spark mini-festival that’s sure to revive interest in her witty, acerbic and deeply moral books.
It’s the culmination of a dream for Muriel Romanes, of the Edinburgh-based Stellar Quines company who specialise in the work of female artists. In 2003, Romanes directed a hit Lyceum Theatre version of Miss Brodie, starring Siobhan Redmond. “I had gone back to the book to re-insert some of some of the original text and I became fascinated by the viability of her dialogue,” explains the director.
“I thought that, as that production was so popular, I should look at her other books and create another piece, so I read them all. I could have done any of them, really, but Slender Means was a short, complete work of art in itself.”
She teamed up with Judith Adams who has written the adaptation, but – as a small company – it took some time to gain the necessary funding and venue for the ambitious project. During the process, Dame Muriel Spark herself approved the script as “very impressive” and wished it well – but the famously abrasive writer had a few suggestions which, Romanes admits, they didn’t dare ignore.
“I never gave up on it, I haunted the Assembly with this piece until they could take it on. My hope is that this adaptation will go on to have a life of its own,” she adds.
That has certainly been the case with the previous adaptation of Miss Brodie, which was written for the Broadway stage in 1968, seven years after the novel that made Muriel Spark an international name. Although some aspects of the book were changed for the stage version, it became the basis for the 1969 film, for which Maggie Smith won an Oscar, and the 1978 TV version, starring Geraldine McEwan. It has also been staged many times over the years, by both professional and amateur companies.
This latest version, first seen at the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton, last year, joins The Girls Of Slender Means at the Assembly Theatre. The only returning cast member is rising star Anna Francolini, recently nominated for an Olivier award for Caroline Or Change at the National Theatre and who – like the dynamic, dangerous teacher she plays – has a special link to Rome, having played a recurring role in the American TV series of that name.
Francolini reckons that Miss Brodie is “probably a frustrated actress – she’s constantly performing and just wants to be looked at. She takes these pupils away from conventional lessons and into a new world, she’s thrilling and charismatic, but what she gives them is not necessarily healthy or appropriate.”
Yet though the two productions are separate, they’re connected by Spark’s unique tone and, coincidentally, by the theme of mostly female communities dealing with growing up in a male-dominated world. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is set in an exclusive Edinburgh girls’ school, where the lessons they learn will have a huge impact on their future lives; The Girls Of Slender Means are young women sharing a London hostel at the end of World War Two, dealing with rationing, rivalries and romance.
But off-stage, there seems to be little female competition, as both Francolini and Romanes say they’re delighted to be part of the Spark revival. Says Romanes, “The more the merrier – I’m thrilled that there will be two productions of her work because as a woman writer, even such a major one, she is more likely to be forgotten in years to come so the more she is talked about and remembered the better.”
The Girls Of Slender Means, Assembly Music Hall, 6-31 August (not 10, 17, 24) 2.50pm From £5 0131 623 3030
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Assembly Hall, 6-31 August (not 17) 12.00am From £10 0131 623 3030
Romeo+Juliet: Les Filles en Scène at Diverse Attractions, 10-15 August