When I was a youngster you’d be hard pressed to find me reading what back in the sixties were considered ‘girls’ books. Mallory Towers, that sort of thing. And especially something like Little Women. I vaguely knew the plot but, meah, not for me.
Wind on the clock and as I entered by twenties and a sort of Neolithic cultural phase, I began to read classics and hunt out serious plays. Shakespeare wasn’t bad, Ibsen had his moments. Moliere too. But Chekhov? Uncle Vanya came and went and I thought, maybe when I’m grown up.
How therefore did I find myself watching Three Sisters on Monday followed by another four on Tuesday? PG Wodehouse warned me about the duplicity of aunts but did I really need to be cautioned about an overdose of the sisterhood?
And here’s the thing. They were, in their very different ways, worthy of my precious time. I didn’t say I’d learnt humility, did I?
Starting with the Chekhov at the National, and The Three Sisters, this piece was set during the Biafran independence push between 67 and 70. You couldn’t be a child of that time and not be aware of the appalling pictures of pot bellied malnourished children. If Live Aid did that for the 80s Biafra did it for the 60s.
The benefit of taking a standard, like Chekhov’s piece and resetting it is that the core of the play, the power-plays between sisters, the patriarchal restrictions and the all round cunning of domestic warfare remains intact – it’s modernised to the time of course so for instance a duel becomes a wrestling match. These tensions are universal and it matters not which of the last 500 years you set it in for the storylines to remain relevant. But then you add the political background, the tribal, post colonial tensions, the differing viewpoints and you have an engrossing production.
No it was far from perfect. I sighed so deeply I inhaled two rows of the circle so despairing was I of the first ten minutes when the characters stood and declaimed like they were part of an open soliloquy night. Good heavens can’t writers reveal their characters and the essential back story with a little bit of finesse?
And while the actors portrayed many emotions none of them seemed comfortable with lust and sexual attraction. It was a little like watching year 5 nativity night when the distance and lack of physical contact between the boy Joseph and the girl Mary made the concept of a virgin birth not only credible but inevitable.
And what on Earth was the point of a net curtain across the stage during the third act? I know there were meant to be war wounded on the other side but all the curtain did was make me think that the neighbourhood watch had somehow sponsored this production.
The critics warned us this was three hours… long but it passed easily enough and without the usual recovery nap that I need these days for anything that includes bonnets and side whiskers. Or in this case towering headdresses and industrial strength moustaches. I’m glad, over all that I went.
The critics have been kind to Little Women. Very. And you couldn’t fault the cast. But that’s true of Cats and look what a priapic tail and floating faces have done to Judy Dench and Taylor Swift.
I think Saoirse Rohan is a fab actress. Florence Pugh too. Laura Dern and Meryl Streep are both consummate professionals. Emma Watson is a little two paced for me, frankly a bit like watching the Ladybird Book of Emoting For Beginners. But as an ensemble of female acting talent it would be criminal to offer them anything as misconceived as Cats.
Fortunately for us they are given a wonderful piece of writing. Now, okay, I’m not a fan of the St Vitus timeline that we have here, with it jumping from childhood to adulthood to the first loves to the current day. The only time I was sure when we were was 1. When Jo March was in New York and Amy in France and 2. When Jo sold her hair. Otherwise I held my breath at a change of scene and waited for a clue. Was Beth dead… oh please, if you don’t know the plot then read a summary – this piece has been around too long for plot spoilers to be an issue. Had father reappeared? Was Aunt March dead?
Still being made to concentrate isn’t such a bad thing and the beautiful writing, the fantastically attractive settings, the utterly unmemorable score – believe me that is a good thing; I can’t tell you the times some ill presented piece of music has ruined a cinematic experience – all of it added up to a lovely night at the cinema.
This is a good film, a watchable piece. It tugs at ones emotions, it explains in ways that the Three Sisters failed fully to unravel, each of the March sisters’ motivations without creating heroes and villains. These are nuanced characters, flawed and frustrated and you root for them all in the end. Even the long suffering mother is better understood in Laura Dean’s hands as anything other than a saint. Her lot is hard, uncompromising and she’s had to make hard choices not all of which are necessarily kind.
Oh and apart from the old guy from the big house who was a bit of a Wuss really, all the men were somewhere on the pathetic spectrum of masculinity. I didn’t root for any of them except to the extent their fortunes were inextricably linked to the March sisters. Indeed, Jo’s publisher apart, if this was the only version of manhood you’d experienced you really would have to wonder why men had any power at all.
Still they say write what you know and maybe Miss Alcott found herself surrounded by emotional eunuchs. I hope they don’t get the gig in some TV spinoff.