Hallowed Ground gives space to the unheard stories of women in the army, but Robert Reid says that the rhetoric of militarism suffuses every scene
Written by performers Carolyn Bock and Helen Hopkins, Hallowed Ground is a new work that celebrates the contribution made by four generations of Australian women doctors at war. With it, the Shift theatre have constructed a solid touring work designed to travel to festivals and rural venues. It’s already played Adelaide Fringe and Perth and is now touring regional Victoria in preparation for a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
We make our way out to see the show in Kyneton at the Town Hall, on the final leg of its tour. It’s a traditional hall with an ornate proscenium arch that frames a smallish postcard of playing space and a stage that is about five feet off the floor, which leaves the actors towering over most of the audience. They’re quite far away too – the front row seats are perhaps five or six feet from the stage. It distances us from the storytelling, forcing the actors into pushing the work out even harder to reach us, losing some of the nuance these performances require to make them feel more real than didactic.
Touring new works independently places specific demands on a production – manageable cast sizes and practical, minimal set and design – and Hallowed Ground incorporates these demands elegantly. Behind the performers is a wall of stretched canvasses, each with its own unique pattern or representation of the environments of war. It includes overhead satellite photos, the moon coming through thick, smokey skies, or crumpled burnt and bloodied material that might be peeling flesh.
The movement throughout is understated and works mostly like a tiny Greek chorus inspired by common surgical practice, subtly underlining the narrative in each scene. The trade-off, however, is that the text and staging both feel expositional. It’s the kind of theatre where the characters only interact with each other in the fictional “onstage” space. It’s at its best when the monologues let us into the active worlds of each character but, when the characters comment on each other’s stories, chiming in with details or observations, it feels stilted and awkward. Information, names, dates and numbers. Description without emotion. The night is like a history lecture in blank verse.
These tales are based on real life events and, as monologues, have the gravitas of the real. Catherine’s stories (Verity Charlton) resonate most with me. Afghanistan. Kosovo. These are the wars of my own youth and so strike a chord of recognition. Lillian’s (Helen Hopkins) experience of the Balkan snowfields of the First World War, Mary’s (Carolyn Bock) World War Two experience as a radiologist, the only woman among 3000 British troops in the Middle East, and Tam’s (Chi Nguyen) experience as a refugee from the Vietnam war and as a Peace Keeper in Iraq, together narrate war over the past century and the slowly shifting acceptance of women in the battlefield.
There’s something awkward about the militaristic and nationalistic themes that inhabit this play. I guess it’s to be expected that a play about four generations of army doctors won’t contain too much critique of the military. The play does draw out the 20th century Australian Army’s sexist policies against hiring women doctors – for the first and second world wars Australian women had to volunteer with the Scottish Women’s Hospital in order to serve – but otherwise the insidious rhetoric of militarism unironically suffuses every scene.
We hear of glorious sunsets over noble battlefields, brave stoic soldiers, the camaraderie and the heroism of the war. There’s no debate, no interrogation of the mechanism of war, no anxiety over the morality of politicised mass slaughter. Instead, the production proceeds on the assumption that there will always be war and that in war there is always a right and a wrong. A clear good and evil. There are no grey areas in the wars of these women.
Feminism is largely expressed in rolled eyes, sarcastic sighs, testy mentions of the “No Women Allowed” policies of the early army and proud descriptions of these women’s small successes. While it relates stories that have routinely been undermined and under-represented for generations, the dramaturgy of Hallowed Ground reinforces familiar stereotypes of women as professionals: even as doctors and soldiers, their true joy and value is as loving mums and caring nurse maids.
Touring a show through the regions is hard. Finding the money for it, finding audiences for it, is hard. It’s not the same as playing in metropolitan Melbourne or Sydney. The practical concerns limit this performance and the thematic concerns limit the writing.
But for all that the play has little action. There’s scant narrative to carry from one monologue to the next. It’s anecdotal, sketching out the experiences of these women to familiarise us with their stories. Without any narrative or dramatic arc, the evening never feels like it moves anywhere. We end in the same place we begin, having stayed exactly here for the duration.
I find at the end that I’m a little confused why the work was called Hallowed Ground. Battle fields are solemn places of remembrance, certainly, and the lives sacrificed make every battleground seem sacred if not sanctified; but nothing is made of it in this play. Is the territory of doctors in war hallowed because it has been “men only” for so long, but now women are allowed into that once sacred space? Or is the territory of Australian at war itself the hallowed ground, protected from criticism, so that the production needs to tip toe carefully around it in order to uncover these women’s’ stories without upsetting any sacred cows?
Hallowed Ground, by Carolyn Bock and Helen Hopkins. Directed by Catherine Hill. Set design by Meg White, lighting design by Richard Vabre, sound design by Abe Pogos, stage Management by Rebecca Etchell. Performed by Chi Nguyen, Verity Charlton, Carolyn Bock and Helen Hopkins.