The Girls of Slender Means - Spark of genius

This article is from 2009

Spark of genius

There’s much more to Muriel Spark than Miss Jean Brodie, says Kirstin Innes

Edinburgh audiences are about to discover there’s much more to Muriel Spark than Miss Jean Brodie, says Kirstin Innes

Think Muriel Spark, think Miss Jean Brodie. The glittering presence of a Scottish schoolteacher with fascist leanings – in her prime – has increasingly come to overshadow everything else that one of Scotland’s greatest, and most prolific, writers has done.

You’re thinking of Dame Maggie Smith, of course, with her exquisite pronunciation, riding her bicycle over the Edinburgh cobbles. This defining image is all down to Hollywood screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, who saw the potential in Jean Brodie to be a breakout character in 1961, the year the book was published. The Brodie legacy, through theatre, television and film, stems from Presson Allen’s script, a simplified, rudimentary version of Spark’s novel.

Independent of each other, two theatre companies are taking on separate adaptations of two of Spark’s novels at the same Fringe venue this year. Royal & Derngate Theatre Company are using a choir of children to add fascistic depth to their interpretation of Presson Allen’s Brodie script, while Scotland’s Stellar Quines have commissioned playwright Judith Adams to adapt The Girls of Slender Means. This is only the second of Spark’s 22 novels to be adapted for theatre, 46 years after Vanessa Redgrave debuted as Brodie in London’s West End.

‘Muriel Spark is, without a doubt, the greatest female writer of modern times that Scotland had,’ explains Muriel Romanes, who conceived and is directing the new production. ‘The reason I’m doing this has a lot to do with Brodie – I know the film is very popular, it’s a very camp, clever piece of work, but there’s more to Spark than that. The idea is to get more of her work seen – hopefully people will see this and realise that there are lots more brilliant books that would make equally brilliant plays. Slender Means is a little bit of art, really.’
The Girls of Slender Means was published two years after Brodie, and can in some ways be seen as a matured re-examination of similar themes. ‘I’m really interested in communities of women,’ says Romanes. ‘This isn’t a community of schoolchildren, as in Brodie. They’ve grown up. These are young women, who have just survived World War II and are living only in the moment. And it’s savage. Muriel Spark is very savage. This isn’t a nice little story of young girls being secretaries and having love affairs in London. They have to be savage to survive. It’s a jungle out there.’

More often than not, transferring novels to the stage or screen becomes a straightforward matter of narrative transference: the plot is lifted, wholesale, beginning to end. What Spark excels in, though, is the non-linear narrative. Her plots – especially the story of the young ladies living at the May of Teck Club in Slender Means – erode timezones, sometimes taking in the whole of a character’s past and future in one devastatingly casual sentence.

She doesn’t even pay lip service to the idea of realism; she’s always so very conscious of herself as an author and her characters as fictional creations that the art and meaning of her works is an intricate structure. This complexity is perhaps why none of the other novels have made it to the stage. What’s so intriguing about Stellar Quines’ The Girls of Slender Means is Romanes and Adams’ approach to their source material: it becomes clear that a genuine act of translation from sculpted prose to live theatricality is happening here.

‘For me, the value is that it’s non-linear,’ says Romanes. ‘It’s a fascinating piece to play with, for the textures. Judith Adams has a wonderfully surreal mind, and is able to completely extrapolate text and mess around with it. She’s written in wonderful devices: film and sound and mad fantasticals. I trust her absolutely.’

So, one imagines, would Spark.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Assembly Hall, 623 3030, 8–31 Aug (not 17, 24), noon, £17.50–£22 (£16–£20). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £10; The Girls of Slender Means, Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, 8–31 Aug (not 10, 17, 24), 4.20pm, £15–£18 (£14–£16). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £10 (£5).

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Jay Presson Allen's 1998 stage adaptation of Muriel Spark's inspiring landmark novel of Miss Jean Brodie. Part of Pitlochry's Homecoming season that features six plays by Scottish authors. Performances run by a daily repertoire system, with a different show every night of the week. Please see website for timetable.

Girls of Slender Means

  • 3 stars

Adapted for the stage by Judith Adams in celebration of Muriel Spark's literary spirit and genius. 'The greatest Scottish novelist of modern times' (Ian Rankin).