Women at War: Review of Cheryl Ward’s Through These Lines

by theatrebloggers

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Since 1914 the position the First World War has held within the public’s imagination has evolved radically, and often in counter-intuitive ways. Although the theatre has been a sometimes neglected media through which this process has been enacted, it has, nevertheless, given rise to some very memorable productions: Journey’s End (1928), For Services Rendered (1932), Oh, What a Lovely War! (1962) and the recent hit, War Horse (2007); the First World War also acted as a source of inspiration for a young Eugene O’Neill.

One hundred years on enter, Through These Lines (2014), Cheryl Ward’s treatment of the conflict from the perspective of the Australian nurses who served alongside the troops. Although inspired by documented letters and diaries from the front, Ward’s text doesn’t get bogged down in a literal recitation of these works and instead gives itself space to create dramatically satisfying scenes. Through These Lines begins in 1914 as the troops and the nurses are sailing out of harbour, bound for Egypt. In one sense the play follows the chronology of the war. We join a nurse, Flo, and we follow her through the conflict, as she arrives in Egypt before being transferred to Turkey, Greece and finally the Western Front. As such the presentation of the play is one of collage – a structure not dissimilar to Oh, What a Lovely War!. We’re given a loose plot when Flo meets a dashing, young soldier, with whom she forms a romantic relationship. But for the most part, this play is one of individual moments. We witness the excitement and sense of adventure as they all set sail for the unknown. This is naturally followed by the disillusionment that sets in when the realities of war are met for the first time. This comes in the form of several scenes set in frantic operation rooms, where the wounded and dying men are brought in seemingly endless waves. It’s a scene that is well choreographed and highlights the sheer volume of human waste that was experienced.

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There are many good things that can be said about this production. In particular, the tight space offered at the Maritime Museum was well utilized and the scene transitions were all seamless; hats off to director, Mary-Anne Gifford. The set and costumes were beautifully selected by Tom Bannerman and Ali Whiteford, respectively. The costumes were flawlessly authentic, down to the braces worn by the men and the brown woollen stockings worn by the women. Bannerman utilized the rather unremarkable theatre space at the Maritime, turning it into a claustrophobic trench and nurses’ quarters. Elliot Glass has done well to light the stage, cleverly littering it with hurricane lamps that operate in tandem. The entire set had a pleasing aesthetic and does wonders for the atmosphere and tension. Additionally, there was hardly a weakness to be found among the cast.

Kate Skinner tackles the role of Sister Florence Whiting, a World War One nurse who finds herself travelling from Australia to Egypt in late 1914. The rest of the cast consists of Cheryl Ward as Matron Ada Watson (an older, slightly humourless nurse), Rebecca Barbera as Sister Mary Douglas (a capable but naïve junior nurse), Gareth Rickards as Lieutenant William Davies (Florence’s love interest), Gary Clementson as Captain McLean (an indifferent commander) and Christian Charisiou as Private Harold Jenkins (a cheerful Australian soldier known for his larrikinism), all shifting in and out of various roles, from Kiwis to Scots to South Africans and Americans. The entire cast is impressive; skilful and charismatic, they command the space and move through the changes with ease. It was a great pleasure to watch such a capable ensemble.

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If anything was wanting in this production, it may have been a stronger sense of narrative and character (Flo being the only readily recognizable character that is followed from start to finish), but the nature of presenting the play as a collage will naturally lead to this. Through These Lines represents a re-evaluation of the war from the female perspective, but even so it doesn’t necessarily offer a portrayal of the First World War overly removed from many of the traditions and myths that have been attached to it for the last thirty years. A more courageous production might have dwelled longer on the issue of sexual violence perpetrated against the nurses by the soldiers, which is an issue that arises within the play, but is quickly sidelined. Regardless, this is a tightly directed play, with a fine eye to detail, and contains a strong ensemble cast. They certainly do credit to the nation’s fighting men and women.

Through These Lines has been on a regional tour, and is playing at the Maritime Museum until the 5th of October. For more information see:
http://throughtheselines.com.au/2014/sydney

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