Muriel Spark: Creme de la Creme

Feb 1 2018 | By More

★★★★☆   Literary

Usher Hall: Wed 31 Jan 2018
Review by Thom Dibdin

On the eve of the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, the Usher Hall was packed for Muriel Spark: Creme de la Creme, an evening of readings, reminiscences and a performed reading of the Edinburgh-born author’s only play.

In contrast to the Edinburgh depicted in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, this was a relatively relaxed affair that positively revelled in its celebration of culture, although only Ian Rankin’s scarlet socks truly reflected the sartorial flamboyance of Spark’s most famous protagonist.

Maureen Beattie, Moyo Akande, Anne Kidd, Lesley Hart, Peter Forbes, Ryan Fletcher and Gabriel Quigley read Doctors of Philosophy. Pic McCredie

There is certainly a level of rebellion to Spark’s Doctors of Philosophy, given a rehearsed reading by a cast brought together by the Royal Lyceum. Directed by David Greig and presented as a taster, skipping through highlights of different scenes, it proved somewhat wordy, but packed with biting wit.

“I didn’t have normal parents, why should you have normal parents?” money-scrimping economist Charlie Delfont (Peter Forbes) asks his daughter Daphne (Moyo Akande) as they argue over her mother Catherine’s neurosis. “My father was a Tory and my mother believed in God – I couldn’t bring my friends home.”

Daphne does bring her friends home – in this case Ryan Fletcher as a hulking lorry-driver. Nevertheless it is a rare outburst from Charlie in a script which is much more interested in its female protagonists, although it is far from clear which of them it is really about – and you suspect that it is this, as much as its twists and turns and playing with form, that  is what keeps the suspense going through the whole play.

The question is whose reality is being played with here. At the core there is Catherine, played with a splendid sense of authority on the verge of collapse by Maureen Beattie, and her cousin Leonora who is lodging with the family, given a sneering yet magnificently desperate edge by Lesley Hart.

knowingly superior

Or maybe it is the reality of straightforward but knowingly superior Mrs. S, the housekeeper (Anne Kidd), who seems to arrive at the most opportune of moments. Although not, one suspects, the sexually charged Annie Wood, who Gabriel Quigley takes a delight in rolling out onto the stage, clearly under the influence.

Muriel Spark and Alan Taylor at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2004.

Given the fun and inklings of something much deeper here, the question about the play is how soon it might appear on the Lyceum’s stage. It’s not had a UK revival since it premiered at the Arts Club in London in 1963 – although Ingmar Bergman directed a successful Swedish revival.

It might be somewhat of its time and also, to be honest, what you might call a novelist’s play, but maybe a bit of dramaturgy from David Greig and some further financial support from Creative Scotland’s Muriel Spark 100 fund (which brought this event to life with the Book Festival) and it would present a very attractive proposition. And might even tour.

Doctors of Philosophy, was, however, just a portion of the evening. Guiding the event through Spark’s life were journalist and author Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor, who was a friend of Spark in her later life and was responsible for asking her to come to the Book Festival in 2004.

Readings were well chosen to dip in and out of that life, from a passage in Curriculum Vitae which talks of Miss Christina Kay, Spark’s teacher when she was ten and who was a model for Miss Jean Brodie, to passages from essays such as What Images Return, and novels, including A Far Cry from Kensington.

impeccably read

They were impeccably read by the actors who took part in the performed reading. Also reading were Ian Rankin, who famously used the time when he should have been writing a PhD on Spark to pursue his own writing, Alexander McCall Smith, who brought a poem written for the evening, and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, whose love for literature is well chronicled.

Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin (and socks), Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor. Pic: Olga Wojta.

Sturgeon gave a strong reading from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, choosing a passage where Jean Brodie is giving a class under the elm tree and, instead of grammar, is telling her girls of her own fiancé, Hugh, who fell at Flanders a week before the armistice.

Paused in her heart-rending account by the arrival of the headmistress, Jean Brodie then praises her girls.

” ‘You did well,’ said Miss Brodie to the class after Miss Mackay had gone, ‘not to answer the question put to you’,” read Sturgeon – knowingly reflecting one of the key tools in any politician’s bag of dark arts. ” ‘It is well, when in difficulties to say never a word, neither of black or white.’ ”

Tailing the evening, Spark herself was heard reading from Jean Brodie – recorded at that Book Festival event in 2004. A real treat to hear, it must be said.

The delight of Spark’s work is that it is so multi-faceted. It doesn’t overwhelm with its cleverness, but is clever in itself: potent, relevant and entertaining all at the same time. The evening caught something of that as a fitting birthday treat.

But as my neighbour pointed out at as we rose to leave, we should have finished with a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to Muriel Spark. That we didn’t might indicate that Edinburgh’s innate reticence, which Spark described so vividly, has yet to be fully dispelled.

Running time 1 hour 45 minutes without interval
Usher Hall, Lothian Road, EH1 2EA.
Wednesday 31 January 2018.
Run ended.


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