Little Wars Online
In the midst of the Second World War, six famous friends – all famous female figures who have paved the way for literature, art and theatre – meet for an unlikely evening, hidden away in the French Alps at the home of Gertrude Stein and her lover Alice B Toklas. This digital revival (via Zoom) by Steven Carl McCasland, directed by Hannah Chissick and in collaboration with the Union Theatre, comes after many other stage versions that have largely been based on the greatest literary feud in modern American history between authors Mary McCarthy and Lilian Hellman.
Whilst this latest adaptation touches on these tensions, its central focus is elsewhere. A mix-up of dates brings the earnest Muriel Gardiner (played by Sarah Solemani) to the Stein household, where she meets the illustrious company. Anti-fascist freedom fighter Gardiner is working as an undercover anti-Nazi agent, saving the lives of many by helping them escape France. She visits Stein to collect money for the passports of the people she is smuggling out.
The soiree coincides with the Nazi invasion, putting all its guests in a heightened emotional state, with strong egos at the fore. The dynamic catalyses heated discussions and arguments, and the cast successfully engage with the deeply rich dialogue and passionate monologues. The group discusses the period’s extreme prejudice against Jews (many of the characters being Jewish themselves), as well as the relationship between Stein and Toklas (Linda Bassett and Catherine Russell), bringing anti-LGBTQ themes to light and adding another layer of relevance to the play.
Each character is given ample airtime, displayed in Zoom’s gallery view. This ensures that everyone is present throughout, allowing the dialogue to flow without interruption – and it works on the one hand as there is no lag or any delay in reactions, but the effect is slightly formulaic as the audience waits for each monologue to be delivered. Nevertheless, director Hannah Chissick ensures a comic, sharp and fluid rehearsed reading, guiding fiery yet eloquent exchanges.
As far as the acting quality is concerned, a Zoom-rehearsed reading has by no means hindered the natural exchanges and reactions of the cast. The performances are captivating, each embodying real purpose and a palpable sense of womanhood. Sophie Thompson’s Agatha Christie brings a sharp wisdom, contrasting with the slow American drawl of Dorothy Parker (Debbie Chazen). Russell’s interpretation of Alice B Toklas is calm and sincere, making for an interesting dynamic with Bassett’s loud and boastful Stein, and showing that opposites really do attract. Juliet Stevenson brings a strong-willed Hellman, in a convincing portrayal of the literary bigshot.
Little Wars outlives its relevance and context: supporting and empowering women is timeless, and certainly resonates here. It is therefore no surprise that the proceeds of this production are going to the Women For Refugee Women charity. Each battle for freedom is a little war to be won.
Little Wars is available to livestream from 3rd until 8th November 2020. For further information or to book visit the production’s website here.