Fiona's prime

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Brava! Brava! Fiona Shaw strides con brio on to the Lyttelton stage as the subversive Edinburgh schoolmistress, Jean Brodie, in a bravura performance which is enough to bring the Italian out in the rest of us. She dominates the audience as if we were all her adoring charges, the Brodie "set", in this National Theatre production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a new adaptation by Jay Presson Allen.

Muriel Spark's heroine breaks the rules of conventional society, admires Mussolini, tells her girls about her forays into the worlds of art and romance when they should be studying Flodden, but her motives are not political. She is dangerous because she is so self-absorbed, to the point where she is cruel in, for example, underestimating Sandy's need to prove herself as a woman as well as a successful acolyte. Brodie is a dedicated teacher, but she wouldn't last two minutes in a system where teachers have to be answerable, where boxes are ticked, the curriculum is fixed and standards are checked.

Shaw, if more Irish than Scots, is mesmerising, revelling in hogging the limelight. The young members of the cast are excellent, with some school-style singing from the Finchley Children's Music Group.

Phyllida Lloyd's often very funny production eschews naturalism for wittier effects: the school's wallbars turning into the grille of the adult Sandy's convent; the Brodie class suddenly becoming a painting of the Last Supper with Miss B centre stage, an all-too-eager Christ. (Tickets: 0171 452 3000.) Forty other young people, in Yorkshire, are about to take to the stage in a brand new musical, The Last Wave. The Made in Sheffield Theatre Company, supported by the Prince's Trust, consists of teenagers, most of whom will receive an Open College accreditation, who have shared their stories about leaving home and breaking old ties to make a new piece. The music is by Steven Keeling, a prodigy of Sondheim. Performances at the Rotherham Arts Centre, July 23-25 (01709 823621).

In a week when the chief executive of the Royal Opera House admitted that attention to education was merley "lip service", its importance is properly acknowledged elsewhere. Pavilion Opera is a professional touring company which does just that - in primary schools. It is an unusual and moving experience to watch Verdi's Don Carlos - love, death and the Inquisition not being generally considered suitable subject matter for nine and 10-year-olds - in a school hall in full daylight. The "stage" is a carpet, the orchestra a piano, the props minimal, but the costumes are gorgeous and the voices fit for Covent Garden.

Last week at Hathaway primary school in Ealing, west London, children from three local schools made up the audience - limited, as usual, to 125. Pavilion always work in an authority for three years, backed by sponsorship, in this case from GlaxoWellcome, as each performance costs Pounds 5,000.

The heads of schools are contacted about six months before a performance so that children can be introduced to the story of an opera - one of the three Pavilion will be playing to adult audiences in any season - with the help of advice from the company.

Children seem able to cope, says Freddy Stockton, the artistic director, with just about anything except Mozart - it is a moot point whether they find his plots too sophisticated or too silly - and enthusiastically design posters and costumes and write poems about the characters and action.

Just before the performance, Freddy visits the schools to check that the potential audience is up to speed on the narrative and then, when the day comes, they can respond to the excitement of the performance and especially the music which they will be hearing for the first time. It seems to work. Last week the children concentrated on every note and plot nuance, especially enjoying the proximity of the cast, some of whom mingled with their audience, showing them letters and props and singing directly to them on bended knee. (Pavilion Opera Educational Trust 0171 935 0823.) Performance has turned out to be the theme of this column. The Royal Academy's exhibition, Chagall: Love and the Stage, is performance captured in paint. Vibrant colours and cheerful, vivid figures celebrate Chagall's association with the theatre during his years in Vitebsk, Belorussia. Huge canvasses such as "Introduction to the Jewish Theatre" contrast with small, humorous costume and set designs. The "love" in the exhibition's title is represented by portraits of the artist with his beloved wife Bella in erotic or romantic poses. The RA has produced an introductory booklet for secondary students, free to 12 to 18-year-olds. (Events: 0171 300 5665.) Enjoy Gallery Week, July 18-26, with storytelling at the National Gallery, "Dream catching" in Dumfries, and "Living Totems" in Antrim. (Information: 0171 278 8382.)

This is the last Art Beat this term. Look out for Summer School, where there will be masterclasses on, among other things, drawing, book reviewing and film-making. Happy, creative holidays!

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