Brantley in Britain: Women Set London’s Stages Ablaze

Theater

LONDON — The schoolteacher’s choice of color is a promise and a warning. Portrayed with a vitality that sears and illuminates by a truly incandescent Lia Williams, the title character of the Donmar Warehouse production of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is first seen amid a world of subdued grays in an alarmingly red dress.

That isn’t the only reason that Miss Brodie’s students — or the audience for David Harrower’s new adaptation of Muriel Spark’s immortal 1961 novel — can’t take their eyes off her. There’s her flame-colored hair, as well, and those too-wide-open eyes that seem to be both devouring and dismissing everything around her.

You may come to regard her as dangerous, ridiculous or simply pathetic. But there’s no denying Miss Brodie’s incendiary presence, in a play that implicitly poses the haunting question of what happens to such intensity when it’s deprived of an outlet.

Or, as is asked about another woman, who is effortlessly dominating the much bigger stage of the Aldwych Theater in the same neighborhood, “How do you hold fire?” The subject in that instance is Anna Mae Bullard, who goes by the professional name of Tina Turner.

Miss Brodie the Scottish schoolteacher and Ms. Turner the great American singer — who is played to the long-legged hilt by Adrienne Warren in the hit bio-musical “Tina” — would seem to have little in common. But seeing these two knockout performances back to back, as I did, gets you thinking about the penalties exacted from women for possessing uncommon potential in a man’s world.

To make a theatergoer’s triptych of the topic, I also met the more wanly luminous figure whose light is being extinguished nightly at the Almeida Theater across town, in Islington. There, a character called Young Woman is introduced to us in a crowded subway car, where she wouldn’t stand out except for the orange gloves she has on.

Those brightly sheathed hands become fatal instruments of destruction, the pride and ruin of the reluctant wife played by Emily Berrington in an unsettling revival of “Machinal.” That’s Sophie Treadwell’s pioneer work of expressionism from 1928, an anatomy of a murder committed by a woman smothered by marriage and motherhood.

Young Woman’s feverish rallying cry, spoken only to herself: “I’ve submitted to enough — I won’t submit to any more.” The F-word — feminism, whose fourth-wave manifestation remains a subject of much discussion on opinion pages here — is never spoken. But it whispers between the lines of “Machinal,” “Tina” and “Jean Brodie.”

As it happens, these three strangely kindred productions are all directed by women: Polly Findlay (“Jean Brodie”), Phyllida Lloyd (“Tina”) and Nathalie Armin (“Machinal”). And each show is infused with a radiant empathy for its beleaguered heroine that approaches religious dimensions.

Seen in those terms, “Tina” — which has a book by the American playwright Katori Hall, with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins — is an act of canonization for its sorely tried but ultimately transcendent star. “Machinal” is a grim, modernist-medieval chronicle of an everywoman’s martyrdom.

“Jean Brodie” — based on a work by a writer for whom mysticism always glimmered from the shadows — locates something almost divine, and equally diabolical, in its thwarted protagonist’s frustrations. It is by far the most subtle and psychologically engaging of the three.

Ms. Findlay’s production also provides the occasion for Ms. Williams, a star of the London stage, to scale new heights with a definitive rendering of an oft-interpreted character. (Ms. Williams may be best known to international audiences for playing Wallis Simpson in the Netflix series “The Crown.”) And no, I am not forgetting Maggie Smith’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1969 film version.

Ms. Smith injected the role with the winning, withering archness that was fast becoming her stylized signature. (See: “Downton Abbey,” nearly 50 years later.) Ms. Williams matches Ms. Smith in amusing affectations. But she also lets us see, with increasing clarity, the uneasily provincial behind the sophisticated artifice.

Our growing awareness of Miss Brodie’s unsatisfied hunger to live larger than she does parallels the gradual disenchantment of her once enraptured coterie of pet pupils. It’s not just that she becomes older; more startling, it’s as if we — like her former students — grow out of the infatuation with which we first perceived her.

Miss Brodie is as dangerous a force as ever in the lives of the girls she calls “the crème de la crème.” After all, she unforgivably tries to engineer a love affair between the prettiest of her disciples and a roué artist, and unwittingly sends an attention-starved pupil to her death in the Spanish Civil War.

But for once, this character evokes something like the pity and terror of classical tragedy. There’s a painful new awareness of Jean’s avidly trying to live through others. Watch her ravenous eyes as she reads a map that traces someone else’s travels, or her shifting profile as she mirrors the girl posing for the painter.

At the end, a now cancer-riddled Miss Brodie accuses the canniest of her former girls (Rona Morrison, excellent) of killing her. It’s an absurd and melodramatic declaration, but you know what she means. What fed and sustained Miss Brodie was the sunlight of the adoring gaze. Deprived of it, she shrinks and withers.

There’s no shrinking — and definitely no withering — by the title character of “Tina.” The book by the gifted Ms. Hall (an Olivier award winner for “The Mountaintop”) for this handsomely produced musical is disappointingly formulaic, the usual inspirational showcase for a series of chart-topping hits.

Poverty, a sexist and racist recording industry and a terrifyingly abusive relationship — with her husband and mentor Ike Turner (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, a perceptive study in anger) — only make the show’s titanic heroine bigger and stronger. What hoists the show several niches above the standard jukebox biography is Ms. Warren’s performance, which finds the gritty sand in Ms. Turner’s pearlescent presence.

A Tony nominee for “Shuffle Along,” the smashing Ms. Warren replicates the signature physical and vocal inflections. More important, she suggests that what we hear when Tina sings is shaped by a confluence of circumstance and character; every note vibrates as a wrestling match between a woman and her demons.

In the first act, after Ike proposes marriage to Tina, she (anachronistically) sings “Better Be Good to Me” — her hit single from the mid-1980s — as an internal monologue. Ms. Warren’s delivery is rooted in a defiant sense of self-worth that would make us feel in our guts, even if we didn’t already know the story, that Ike doesn’t stand in a chance in the battle of wills ahead.

Triumph of any kind is never in the cards for the heroine of “Machinal.” Her unhappy road from joyless servitude as a stenographer to a loveless marriage to death in the electric chair is paved by a steamroller society that flattens its female inhabitants. As designed by the great Miriam Buether, the set for “Machinal” gradually and surreally shifts from the early 1920s to the present, suggesting that even as times change, a woman’s lot remains much the same.

Theatergoers hoping for more heartening news might want to check out the rousing, brisk production of “Hamlet” at the open-air Shakespeare’s Globe theater. There, the company’s adventurous new artistic director, Michelle Terry, is starring as the Prince of Denmark in a gender-blind production directed by the (female) team of Federay Holmes and Elle White.

The show doesn’t make a big deal of girls playing boys and vice versa. (Ophelia, embodied by the lissome Shubham Saraf, has hair on her chest.) Ms. Terry’s performance in the title role is enjoyably blustery, intemperate and self-deluding in the play’s first four acts.

I didn’t even think about the character’s gender until near the end, when Hamlet returns to Denmark as, well, a new man — a calmer, more centered individual with a firm sense of purpose (and a ponytail) and a long view of life.

After four acts of brooding vacillation, he is finally able to accomplish what he must. Sometimes, evidently, what a raging tragic hero really needs is to get in touch with his feminine side.

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