Juliet Stevenson plays American-Jewish writer Lillian Hellman in Little Wars
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Juliet Stevenson plays American-Jewish writer Lillian Hellman in Little Wars

Truly, Madly, Deeply actress stands up against Nazism in online play featuring Sophie Thompson, Linda Bassett, Catherine Russell, Debbie Chazen and Sarah Solemani

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Juliet Stevenson plays Lillian Hellman in Little Wars
Juliet Stevenson plays Lillian Hellman in Little Wars

Imagine if literary greats Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman all came together for dinner on the eve of the Nazi invasion of France.

And just for good measure, the invitation was extended to the queen of murder mystery novels, Agatha Christie.

That’s just the tantalising scenario of Carl McCasland’s play Little Wars, now streaming online and featuring a stellar cast led by Juliet Stevenson as Hellman, alongside Sophie Thompson as Christie, Linda Bassett as Stein, Catherine Russell as Alice B Toklas and Debbie Chazen as Parker.

Directed by Hannah Chissick, the line-up also includes Natasha Karp and Sarah Solemani as anti-fascist freedom fighter Muriel Gardiner.

For Stevenson, who is best known for her roles in Truly, Madly, Deeply alongside the late actor Alan Rickman, as well as Emma and Bend It Like Beckham, there’s something of a thrill in portraying American-Jewish playwright Hellman.

Top row: Catherine Russell, Linda Bassett, Juliet Stevenson and Debbie Chazen Bottom row: Sarah Solemani, Natasha Karp and Sophie Thompson

“She’s always been a bit of a heroine of mine,” explains the 64-year-old actress, who is currently starring in new BBC comedy Out of Her Mind with Sara Pascoe.

“She was one of those amazing people who didn’t yield to The House Un-American Activities Committee under McCarthy and as a result she was blacklisted.”

That said Hellman, who scored a string of successes on Broadway including The Children’s Hour, Toys In The Attic and The Little Foxes, was not without controversy.

With a reputation for being loose with the truth, it was once said of Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

In particular, she detailed in her 1973 autobiography how she embarked on a daring mission to smuggle money through Nazi Germany for a childhood friend involved with the anti-fascist movement – an episode that was later turned into the film, Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.

But some claim Hellman “stole” the story from the real-life escapades of anti-fascist activist Muriel Gardiner.

The episode features in Little Wars as a way of explaining how Hellman’s character goes from a place of pessimism to actively standing up against Nazism.

“Gardiner is this amazing young woman who has dedicated herself to saving Jewish families and children, but Hellman is sceptical: You saved five lives yesterday and will save another three tomorrow, but you can’t stop this nightmare happening.

“That seems to be her position, but something happens in that room to switch her from being resigned about any attempt to stop this inexorable Nazi march into France to actively engaging in a mission herself.”

While the play might be set at the very cusp of the Second World War, Stevenson is quick to acknowledge the parallels of living through today’s pandemic.

Are we in a warlike state, I ask?

“Very much so,” agrees Stevenson. “I’ve just been with my 96-year-old mum, who was a teenager during the Second World War and she keeps saying, ‘it’s like the war, darling’. It’s not in the real sense, but the country is besieged by anxiety and fear.

“Life is difficult enough for most people and now they have to have this superhuman effort to try and keep alive against this invisible enemy, which is difficult psychologically to deal with.”

Stevenson is currently starring in BBC comedy Out of Her Mind with Sara Pascoe

She believes that while the Second World War brought people together against a common enemy, “there’s a huge danger that Covid will divide this country yet further.”

Stevenson adds: “Brexit carved a line down the middle of families, communities, relationships and workplaces. It split this country into almost a cold civil war and there is a great danger Covid will pursue that further because it is the poor, the not white, the disadvantaged who are suffering so much more right now than the wealthy.”

On the topic of who Stevenson would choose to invite to her dream dinner party, she lists William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Katherine Mansfield, alongside more poignant choices.

“Number one would be my dad, because I lost him when I was 34 and he was only 70. There were just so many conversations we never had, and he never met my children.

“Number two would be my brother, who I also lost when he was far too young,” she tells me, before revealing a third guest at the table would be her late mother-in-law, who arrived as a Jewish refugee from Vienna in 1938.

“She lost all her family in the Holocaust. There’s a million questions I would have liked to ask, but she never wanted to talk about it. She just wanted to make the best of her life.”

Given the chance, Stevenson would no doubt also invite the late Alan Rickman, with whom she starred in Anthony Minghella’s landmark 1991 drama, Truly, Madly, Deeply.

Nearly 30 years on, Stevenson looks back at that role with fondness. “It was one of the great jobs of my life,” she tells me. “Anthony cast us all as a group of friends, we all knew each other already. One of the successes of the drama is that those relationships are really bedded in.

“Alan was much older than me and treated me like his younger sister. I adored him and was also bossed around by him. He told me what to do and how to dress and behave and I got angry with that, but I always did what he told me!

“There was so much in Nina and Jamie that came out from our real-life relationship. We could work at a level of intimacy from the first day that you don’t normally achieve even by the last.”

Little Wars is available to stream until Sunday, 8 November. Details: www.littlewars.co.uk

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