The bond between female siblings has never been a more potent subject for dramatists, with hits from Little Women to Frozen putting it front and centre, writes Natasha Tripney.
Arguably the most brutal, gasp-inducing moment in Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women is when a jealous Amy burns her sister Jo’s manuscript. As framed by Gerwig, it’s a bigger betrayal even than her later marrying Laurie. Amy knows how important Jo’s writing is to her, how much its loss will hurt her – and she does it anyway.
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While Gerwig’s Oscar-winning film is arguably too cosy at times, its brilliance lies in the way it captures the richness of the relationship between the March sisters – their playfulness, their games, the depth of their affection, and their devastation over the death of one of their number, poor Beth.
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The ties between the sisters – played by Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen – form the core of the story. They are relationships in which love and rivalry – as well as envy and empathy – coexist, if not always easily. Sisters know each other inside out. They know better than anyone else each other’s hopes and dreams – and, as Amy proves, they also know precisely what to do and what to say in order to wound one another.
We’re so used to a woman’s story being interesting only if it’s been affected by a man – Lulu Raczka
It’s a relationship that has appealed to dramatists since time immemorial. From Sophocles to Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams to Brian Friel, sisters have featured in some of the most performed plays in the canon. But, from Little Women to Fleabag, Frozen and many other film, TV and theatre productions, recently there has been a particularly interesting wave of art about sisterhood – Gerwig herself will move from directing a film about sisters to playing one opposite Oscar Isaac in Sam Gold’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters at New York Theatre Workshop later this year.
This surge in sister stories may come down partly to the fact that female writers and directors increasingly have more agency and opportunities to tell the stories they want to tell, and partly to an increasing willingness to recognise that not all stories need to place the male experience at their centre. “We’re so used to a woman’s story being interesting only if it’s been affected by a man,” says UK playwright Lulu Raczka, who has just premiered her own sister-led work, a fresh take on Sophocles’ Antigone. But when it comes to sisters, it’s the bond between the women that counts.
Fleabag’s real love story
In Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, the main emotional thread running through the TV series is arguably the one between the title character and her prickly sister Claire (played with brilliant brittleness by Sian Clifford). Both are differently difficult; both are dealing with grief in their own way. They know precisely how to push each other’s buttons. This only deepens in the second series. While Andrew Scott’s ‘hot priest’ is a source of release, the lasting love is between Fleabag and Claire.
In the original one-woman stage show in which the character debuted, Claire is a cameo. She’s the uptight sister with the awful ‘fun drunk’ husband who plaits her hair when she’s on her period. Fleabag aches to say something nice to her but can never find the words. However by the end of the TV version, Fleabag has found them. “The only person I’d run through an airport for is you,” she tells her – a declaration of love if ever there was one.
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Fleabag and Disney’s Frozen franchise might not appear to have a lot in common but the original 2013 film similarly puts the relationship between sisters at the heart of its story. In its tale of two princesses, the true love, capable of breaking spells and thawing hearts, doesn’t involve a prince, but is the one that exists between them.
How Frozen’s princesses rescue each other
Jennifer Lee, Frozen’s writer and director, decided early on in the writing process that ice-queen figure Elsa and the more conventional princess protagonist Anna had to be sisters. “As soon as we discussed making them sisters, there were emotional stakes between them,” she tells BBC Culture. That’s when the idea of Elsa as a villain became less interesting. The characters became more complex and sympathetic.”
A younger sister herself, Lee brought some of her own relationship to bear on the characters. “To me [my older sister] was magic – so capable, so smart, so strong. Like Anna, I was the free spirit who didn’t always recognise the responsibilities my big sister carried for us both.”
I love the courage Anna and Elsa have. They’re not perfect, and they don’t have all the answers, but they fight for what’s right for each other – Jennifer Lee
Lee never felt any pressure to give Elsa a love interest: the character is “wrestling to control and accept her inner power. We never saw her doing that through a romantic relationship,” she says. But even Anna’s romantic storyline is a red herring, in which her lover turns out to be the villain of the piece. “It was built to support her discovery of going from a naive understanding of true love to the ultimate understanding – putting someone else’s needs before your own. In this case that someone else was her sister,” says Lee.
While Lee says she feels too close to the film to gauge why it’s proved as popular as it has, one of the things she’s heard said the most is that the special bond between the sisters resonates with people. “I love the courage these two women have. They’re not perfect, and they don’t have all the answers, but they fight for what’s right for each other. I love that they are not rescued by a prince, rather they rescue each other, and they rescue themselves.”
Lee has since written a sequel to Frozen, released last year, as well as a musical, directed by Michael Grandage, which opened on Broadway in 2018 and will open in London’s West End in October 2020. In adapting it for the stage, she was able to explore the relationship between Elsa and Anna in greater detail. “We got to showcase the warmth Elsa still carried inside. We were also able to expand upon the sisters’ bond and the pain from their broken family. That, I think, allows the resolution to be that much more emotional.”
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The image of the sister as rescuer is a potent one. When Joss Whedon wanted to rearrange the emotional terrain of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the cult show entered its fifth season, he created the character of Dawn, Buffy’s younger sister: a cosmic key in human form, but a sibling all the same. The character might have proved divisive to viewers, but she gave Buffy someone to fight for, to protect, and, in later series, raise. This idea of the sister as protector is also central to The Hunger Games films, with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss stepping into the combat arena in place of her sister.
On stage, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba present groups of fatherless sisters as micro-communities. These are a way for the playwrights to explore social change and the different pressures placed upon women by the outside world, the passing of time, and their own longings.
Theatre’s messy depiction of sisterhood
Raczka’s writing has always focused on women’s stories, so it made sense to her to place a relationship between sisters at the heart of her new Antigone, which recently ran at London’s New Diorama Theatre. “My work always ends up being about female relationships, and sisters are the most intimate version of that,” she explains, adding that she finds their bond interesting because it’s so “complicated and messy”. This is particularly true of teenagers, she says. “There can be a massive amount of jealousy. There can be a lot of envy because women are taught to pit themselves against each other.”
Raczka knew from the beginning that she wanted to focus on the relationship between Antigone and the relatively minor character of her sister Ismene. Her version explores the sisters’ background as teenagers, living an isolated but comfortable life with only each other for company, until the death of their brother Polynices in battle compels Antigone to sacrifice herself. She defies King Creon’s order that he remain unburied and unmourned, knowing that to do so is to risk death, and that to die is to leave Ismene behind.
There can be a tendency to romanticise sisters, which can make you feel bad if you’re not close – Lulu Raczka
To her, the relationship between Antigone and Ismene was always more interesting than the one between Antigone and her lover, Creon’s son Haemon, despite the fact they only share one scene together in the Sophocles original.
For Raczka, the tragedy is as much Ismene’s as Antigone’s; she gets to live on, to experience things her sister will never experience, to keep existing in a world without her. Even after Antigone’s death, she says, “Ismene’s can never not be Antigone’s sister.”
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Raczka also suggests that sometimes the bond between sisters can be overly idealised in fiction as in life. “There can be a tendency to romanticise sisters, which can make you feel bad if you’re not close.” This is something playwright Chloe Moss explores in her new play, Run Sister Run, a co-production with Sheffield Theatre and touring theatre company Paines Plough, about two sisters whose lives have taken very different paths. Moss was interested in the idea of trauma, and how it can twist a relationship – “how it can unite you or drive you apart”.
The sisters in her play, Chloe and Ursula, were close once but have grown apart, and barely spoken in years. Moss was keen to explore what happens when two people with a shared past are forced in different directions; the play spans 40 years, and shifts backwards and forwards in time, exploring their memories of their childhood. “The sisters share things that only the two of them will ever understand,” Moss says. “Even if you don’t get on, that shared past is still there. You still know things that no one else will know about your childhood. So it’s especially poignant if that fractures as adults.”
Like Raczka, Moss has always enjoyed writing about female relationships, so writing about sisters was a logical leap. “It’s not that I don’t like writing complicated men, but I enjoy putting women centre stage. You don’t see enough women who aren’t attached to a man’s story. We’re overrun with that.”
Moss adds that she doesn’t have a sister herself. “I wonder whether I would have written it if I did.”
Frozen is at St James Theatre, New York, and previews from 30 October at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London.
Run Sister Run is at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 21 March and Soho Theatre from 25 March to 2 May.
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