Dead Equal is a resplendent feminist perspective on female involvement in combat. Championing the women who have played a vital part in the army, writer Lila Palmer has integrated verbatim testimony of army service women stationed in Afghanistan, with the trailblazing story of the first British woman to serve on the front line in the First World War. Three women come together in this operatic narrative, considering the burdens that fall more heavily on women serving in the military.
Beautifully written, powerfully performed and reaching the hearts of everyone listening
Dead Equal explores the story of army medic Flora Sandes, played by dynamic Canadian soprano Teiya Kashara. As she forges somewhat more than a friendship with fellow medic Emily Simmonds, played by Lila Palmer herself, both unleash in each other the power to live out their most taboo aspirations. As the death count soars, Sandes inspires Simmonds to live her dream of being a surgeon – performing amputations, and stemming the loss of life. And, to Simmonds’ horror, Sandes decides that she can no longer simply “watch death” anymore; she needs more – to “live this war”. The operatic piece built around their debate on the validity of this move is profound, poetic and dripping with pathos – beautifully written, powerfully performed and reaching the hearts of everyone listening. “You forgot your place, you can’t close that space”, Simmonds admonishes Sandes. But close it she does, and she becomes the first woman to serve on the Allied front line.
This script has been cleverly developed to consider many of the issues disproportionately experienced by women in the army. The character of Jo, played by Simone Ibbet-Brown, examines the role of mothers in the army and the familial and societal pressures they face in choosing this career. Through the character of Simmonds, we consider the institutional nature of the army in picking up care experienced people with seemingly nowhere else to turn. And lurking deeply in the subtext is the notion of sexual harassment, and the difficulties in raising this if one is to succeed. Ultimately, what the performance tells us is that the unique pressures women faced in frontline roles in the First World War are not so different in 2019.
There’s many spectacular elements to this piece – not only the innovative presentation of womens’ experiences in combat, but also the exploration of women taking agency in male dominated spaces in general. The operatic performances by the trio of protagonists are powerful, threatening to lift the roof off the army drill hall. The physical movement pieces are spectacular, for example the choreography of Simmonds performing her first amputations. The drunken operatic scene where Sandes and Simmonds forge the bond of sisterhood in the most powerful way is inspiring, as they consider through song how gender stereotypes cannot limit their desires.
A unique piece, which could be considered niche due to the operatic element – but as a newcomer to opera, this reviewer found it endearing, enlightening and deserving of a strong recommendation.