Streaming 3 – 8 November
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
This rehearsed reading of Steven Carl McCasland’s imaginary meeting of some extraordinary women has a stellar cast, but even they cannot spark life into this verbose play.
Inspired by the literary feud between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy – who questioned Hellman’s claims in Pentimento that she had worked with the activist and close friend Julia to save Jews during WWII, insisting that she had stolen the story of Muriel Gardiner – McCasland engineers an accidental meeting between Hellman and Gardiner at one of Gertrude Stein’s salons.
Stein (Linda Bassett) and her partner Alice Toklas (Catherine Russell) give Muriel (Sarah Solemani) money to arrange 3 fake passports and safe passage for Jews to escape from the Nazis. A mix up means that Muriel arrives on the same evening as the couple and their maid Bernadette (Natasha Karp) are expecting literary guests – Hellman (Juliet Stevenson), Dorothy Parker (Debbie Chazen) and Agatha Christie (Sophie Thompson). Muriel decides to stay to meet the writers, and a night of drinking, insults, soul-searching and confessions begins.
The performances are faultless, with Bassett and Stevenson exchanging barbs with arrogance, charm and increasing vulnerability, and Solemani nailing the drive and passion of a revolutionary. Thompson is sharp and unrelenting inquisitive as Christie and Chazen nails Parker’s arch comebacks. The heart of the play is Russell’s loving and steadying Toklas and Karp’s mysterious Bernadette, traumatised after a horrific encounter with Nazis.
The themes of the play are still frighteningly relevant, with the women talking about attitudes towards lesbians, abortions, anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and personal accountability, but the structure of the play is just too much like a talking therapy session between Stein and Hellman proving how clever and talented they are to each other, every character gets a big emotional speech that acts to break down the barriers between the women – and their consciences- and the pragmatic and initially selfish Hellman gets to become a hero. And Parker is perhaps the least snarky of the women! The round robin of confessions acts to lessen the impact of stories that would otherwise be much more affecting, and it’s only Parker and Bernadette who really have any lasting impact in that respect. It’s as if the writer was unwilling to discard any research or idea and the result is an overegged pudding. The actors are recorded separately and are presented like a wartime Zoom meeting by director Hannah Chissick, but this isolation probably doesn’t impact too much on the production, as the script is definitely one where characters speak at, rather than connect with each other.
A worthy but over wordy play that is worth a look for the impressive performances, and is raising funds for Women For Refugee Women