While I don’t want to be pessimistic, the fact that the last few days has seen a steady rise in Covid case figures to the point where a broadcast press briefing was called for the first time in ages, should be given us pause for thought. The further fact that the Health Minister can seemingly predict 100,000 cases a day by midwinter and at the same time state that for now we carry on regardless seems to smack of the sort of idiocy that our leaders displayed in the First World War. So, it seemed not inappropriate to revisit that particular era through a play which looked at the senseless loss of life and at a time when the medical service was in dire peril of being overwhelmed through under resourcing.
Of course, there was no NHS at the time so the audio play Women In War by Alfie James focuses on the work of the Munro Air Ambulance Corps whose mission was to move wounded troops from the battlefield to hospitals in Flanders. In particular the narrative focuses on Lotte, a young volunteer who joins the Corps where she has harrowing encounters with death, injury, loneliness and loss. However, she also finds comradeship with fellow members Miss Knocker, Miss Chisholm and especially Lady Dorothie Feilding. The latter provides a major point of inspiration behind the play being a real life heiress who rejected her privileged position to volunteer on the Western Front and became highly decorated for her brave actions. It’s not a story I had come across before, although well documented, so it exerted a degree of interest about these self-sacrificing women who came to be known as “Blesses”.
The central character is Lotte (Atarah) a new recruit and we experience events through her eyes as she goes through a baptism of fire on her first day. There is also a fully realised gallery of other people – the doctors, patients, drivers, porters, and although these sometimes divert the course of the narrative from the central figure they provide a snapshot of life, death and even birth as the various characters take central position. One of these is Robert de Broqueville (Alfie James), the real life son of the Belgian War Minister, who goes missing causing many an anxious moment. Perhaps the most interesting and well developed character is the Sister running the hospital (Eva Von Mitzka). Traditionally fierce and highly dedicated a late monologue reveals her reasons for taking on such a monumental task which requires a rapid reappraisal of her character. There’s a somewhat unnecessary framing device in which Lotte’s great granddaughter is trying to construct a play about her relative with someone (and I’m not sure what the relationship was there) who is rather critical of her methods. These two characters emerge from time to time to add some context and narration but, I felt, rather got in the way of the smooth telling of the story.
The context in which this play was developed is an interesting one. Alfie James Productions leads on and contributes to many locally based projects (see here for details). The Women In War project, of which this play is the culmination, was first developed in 2010 with the piece being performed at Camden People’s Theatre. Last year the project was rerun via the Story-Box Theatre Project “designed especially for adults aged 55 and over (to) explore the art of oral storytelling through fun, practical performance techniques before working towards regular small public performances”. This took place in Epping which is just down the road from me and this, no doubt, piqued my interest. Some of the original 2010 cast recreated their roles for this current audio version; others came from the project participants. Although there is an evident wide range of theatrical ability involved and some of the recording is a bit patchy, it’s a valuable record of what a locally based arts project can achieve as well as telling an interesting story which deserves to be more celebrated than it is.