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‘Offers very human portraits of great writers’: LITTLE WARS (Online review)

Besides looking in on itself, one of theatre’s other favourite preoccupations is imagining conversations between the great men and women of history; one way of doing this is to elaborate on meetings that could feasibly have taken place such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s scientific debate in Copenhagen, J. T. Rogers’ superb political meeting drama Oslo or the electrifying evening of power struggles, civil rights, fame and masculine sparring that took place in Kemp Power’s One Night In Miami (recently and brilliantly filmed by Regina King) pitting Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Muhammed Ali and Jim Brown together at a pivotal moment in the 1960s.

Other plays take a more interpretive approach, giving their famous protagonists an entirely fictionalised scenario in which to explore their personality, style and legacy of which Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland is a most recent example, giving Patricia Highsmith’s own life the Highsmith treatment. These plays are designed to celebrate their illustrious characters but also to humanise them, looking beyond literary, political and creative reputations for the contextualised human beneath.

Late last year, Stream Theatre staged a rehearsed reading of a 2016 play in which five well-known playwrights and authors convened across the Channel for a dinner party on the eve of the Fall of France in 1940. What is remarkable about Little Wars is that every person in attendance was female, from the housekeeper Bernadette to the mysteriously ordinary psychiatrist introduced as Mary to a gaggle of famous faces including host Gertrude Stein and guests Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie. Returning to Stream Theatre for two weeks of encore performances, Stephen Carl McCasland’s piece is most decidedly not a “women’s play” but an exploration of writers, their egos and the passivity of inaction.

Set at a decisive moment in the Second World War, aside from their literary credentials, it is notable that almost all of McCasland’s characters are Jewish, fearing the imminent arrival of the German army and responding in quite different ways to the rumours of mass extermination. That most of the characters are also American adds a different shape to the narrative of Little Wars as it explores the feeling of disassociation that some of these writers feel towards the war and its impact on others with whom they should share some affinity. That relationship with America is, for some present, equally problematic with several of the faultlines in this play depending on whether the individual plans to escape the war (and thereby the threat of Nazi persecution) by just going home and those who have forsworn their allegiance to the country of their birth and instead fervently proclaim kinship with their adopted nation.

What McCasland does so cleverly is to weave these debates into a much wider and more fluid conversation designed to get the measure of each person present while offering a series of character journeys that (largely) prevent the play from becoming too stagnant. Among such an illustrious groups of writers – a recognition they are well aware of – naturally, there is competition and over-familiarity which gives early parts of Little Wars a waspishness as the guests trade insults and personal critiques. Strength of character is hardly lacking as these titans of literature snarl and swipe, but a cohesive feeling builds between them as they debate their work, their lives and the developing pace of the war.

Remarkably, this dialogue feels like the conversation that (too often) would only have been given to men in a play, touching as it does on the big issues of the day and the views that each of the guests has independently formed, can astutely argue and defend. And while much later in the story there are sensitive discussions around the female experiences of rape, abortion and miscarriage that emerge from their own lives, for the most part McCasland gives his characters the same freedoms, intellectual rigour and discursive style as men so often receive in plays of this nature. No one present is a woman writer, they are just writers and had McCasland convened US-UK male contemporaries like Hemingway, Hammett, Rattigan and McCullers for an equivalent dinner, their conversation would have been largely the same – they drink, they compete and reveal a complex array of strengths, weaknesses, quirks and passions. It is refreshing to see an all female discussion reflect the reality of women’s varied and informed conversation.

What begins as a literary soiree perhaps designed to overawe the audience with the prestige of its authors arriving slowly, using their anticipated entrance to stoke and shape the play’s drive in the early scenes, becomes an exploration of morality and its gradations as each character is asked to reckon with the “what would you do” dilemma in response to the saving of Jewish lives in France and Germany as McCasland asks where the writer ends and the empathetic human begins. Increasingly, as this tale plays out, the high-minded swipes and barbs aimed at each other’s published works, themes and personalities by necessity give way to the more practical considerations represented by the two non-famous members of the group.

McCasland uses these two characters as devices to expose the gulf between the somewhat sanitised world of the American expat creatives living among their own set, steeped in the Albee-like rituals of domestic competition and one-upmanship, and the intrusive reality of Nazi government with its impending military occupation – worlds that move far closer together during the course of the play catalysed by the experience of Mary and Bernadette in which McCasland manages the taut scenario, circular nature of the interactions and escalating drama with skill.

Staged as a rehearsed reading in video boxes (though with no visible scripts), Little Wars is densely packed with activities and shifting conversations driven by the identity of the mysterious Mary – and listen out for a crucial slip when Gertrude Stein subtly uses a different christian name for her guest. It is a very talky play and – as with the recent film adaptation of One Night in Miami – some may find its intensely conversational style is weakened by the static nature of the streaming format, losing the movement that would vary the pace and intensity in a theatre. In places the drama is undercut as characters are prevented from flouncing out in a fury and are unable to physically impose on another’s personal space as a territorial move. Instead, their video gently fades out when their character exits.

Nonetheless, just listening to these people talk becomes engrossing, largely overcoming the boundaries of the platform and socially distant approach, allowing the viewer to envisage how Little Wars might be staged. The unused dining table, plenty of comfortable chairs, sofas and bookshelves around which the group can conduct their private and collective interactions, its boundaries demarcating a barrier with the outside world, a bubble of privilege and protection in which these writers have lived for too long and is about to be unceremoniously burst.

With an excellent cast, the performance quality is very high as these famous faces spring to life, almost all of whom feel like real people with a past and future beyond the confines of this one night, the play and, crucially, their own fame as a writer with which audience expectation will be laden. Best among them is Linda Bassett as Stein who balances her devoted belief in France’s ability to withstand the German army with her status as the grande dame of this literary salon. The liberty Stein feels in Europe living openly with Alice Toklas and the various ways in which she is cast as an outsider in this age and location – American, Jew, lesbian and woman – are starkly conveyed in Bassett’s performance, adopting a fierce exterior shell that protects a softer heart and sensitivity beneath that Bassett unveils during the course of the play.

Her chief antagonist is Juliet Stevenson’s playwright Lillian Hellman (consistently referred to as Lily-Ann by Stein) whose bruising and even brash personality initially offers little sympathy. And Hellman’s frankness is one of Little Wars most enjoyable aspects not only creating plenty of confrontational opportunities that stoke the rivalries between the writers but also asking some of the play’s most troubling questions about the extent of an individual’s ability to make a difference or even care for strangers. Stevenson gives Hellman a grounded reality that never hides or shies away from the character’s arrogance and sense of entitlement but there are moments when someone hits a nerve that show a depth of feeling beneath the seemingly callous exterior.

Debbie Chazen’s Dorothy Parker is also one of the more exuberant attendees whose comfort with her own life and experience is clearly conveyed. A hard drinker with a scathing tongue and many lovers, this version of Parker is more personable than some of her fellow guests, while later in the play her more emotional backstory is expanded, exploring the difficult journey through the consequences of those relationships and one in particular that makes sense of her alcoholism and determination to live for herself.

There are far quieter performances from Catherine Russell as Tolkas the writer-to-be whose calm, unassuming presence provides a social glue that brings the conflicting personalities together. Almost happy to live in the shadow of Stein, their relationship is clearly full of affection and Russell navigates that role of facilitator and chief support well. Sarah Solemani’s gives the mysterious Mary a gentle tone, respectful of the successful women around her but increasingly firm in her own views as the discussion turns. In playing a character with secrets to reveal Solemani makes Mary modest about her own history but is nonetheless a charismatic presence on screen hinting to the audience of her greater role in the story ahead, while Natasha Karp as housekeeper Bernadette is absent for long periods but becomes the emotional centre of Little Wars. She may be socially separated by age and occupation from the assembled party but has some of the most difficult material to deliver which Karp does with feeling and compassion.

It is perhaps the most famous of the writers – certainly to British audiences – that strikes the wrong note and Sophie Thompson’s Agatha Christie never seems at ease in this company. It’s not quite that she is the only British guest or that she has no religious association with the others, but something in the clipped headmistress tone and cold demeanor that never sits entirely comfortably in this play. Why Christie is here, how she knows or whether she even likes Stein are never fully addressed, and, while McCasland perhaps looks for an outside perspective, besides the value of her illustrious name in this company and the anticipatory value of arriving last, Christie’s presence, trajectory and manner feel entirely superfluous, giving Thompson little to do but wheel out once again the tale of her disappearance following her first husband’s infidelity almost 15 years earlier.

With a charitable donation for every digital ticket sold going to Women for Refugee Women, Little Wars is still an all too rare experience – a play that puts women at its centre without focusing specifically on ‘women’s issues’. With influences from the opening scene of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls to the plethora of imagined conversations between literary, scientific and intellectual greats, McCasland’s play seems destined for a UK stage production in the not too distant future. In the meantime this rehearsed reading via Stream Theatre offers very human portraits of great writers and their imagined meeting in France.

Little Wars is available from Stream Theatre until 14 February and tickets cost £13 including fees. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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