Hallowed Ground – Women Doctors in War

Lilian, Catherine, Mary and Tam all have one thing in common, they risk their lives to serve their country and save the lives of others. These are four women telling the stories of many more with one resounding message, women have been at the forefront of military medicine for one hundred years.

This piece feels urgent and relevant and is well worth a watch.

In the Army Reserve centre in New Town, a whole programme has been created which focuses on military stories and lives lived in and out of uniform. This play tells the stories of women doctors in war from around the planet across one hundred years. Four women and a century of stories have been collated to paint a holistic picture of women saving lives and dying for their country, on and off the front line. Told in the Drill Hall of the Army Reserve, where soldiers show you to your seats and do the pre-show announcement, Hallowed Ground is powerful, poignant and quietly political.

Lilian, played expertly by Helen Hopkins, is a surgeon in her fifties who is denied service in the Australian forces, and so joins the Scottish Women’s Hospital which employed women, a rarity back then. She travels the world during the war with her partner, Mary (Carolyn Bock), who volunteers driving ambulances. Lilian’s dedication to medicine and her skill at surgery is apparent in the tales she tells of improvised medical solutions, as she created her own treatments for diseases that were often a death sentence.

Another moving tale later in the 20th century is that of Tam, played by Chi Nguyen with understated power. Tam is a Vietnamese doctor, who escapes as a refugee to Australia. Nguyen narrates Tam’s story in Vietnamese and English, with captioning on the scream behind her. The simple set design complements Nguyen’s harrowing performance.

More tales of women doctors at war in Afghanistan and elsewhere pepper the script, helped by projection and excellent multi-rolling. It is the ensemble-driven nature of the play that works best. Despite an awkward movement sequence that needs to be smoothed out, the multi-generation nature of this piece is what tugs at the heart. One feels the weight of history’s women doctors, as the doctors of today follow in their footsteps.

Women from one hundred years ago talk to women today about shared experiences of prejudice in the field and the progress that has been made as they can ‘kick down doors, not open’ to the women of yesterday.

In a world where ‘the history of women is a history of silence’, Women Doctors at War is an empowering enactment of female agency. It is not the smoothest piece of theatre I have seen this Fringe, but it tells stories that need to be shared. Set in the Drill Hall, a place of military practice, this piece feels urgent and relevant and is well worth a watch.

Reviews by Jane Prinsley

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The Blurb

Hallowed Ground – Women Doctors in War. From Serbian snowfields to deserts in Afghanistan, four women unite across a century. Lilian, a surgeon in her fifties denied service in the Australian army in WW1, joins The Scottish Women's Hospital. In WW2, Australian radiologist Mary finds herself the only woman among 3000 British troops in the Middle East. In Iraq, doctor Tam, plagued by dreams of fleeing war-torn Saigon reconciles her own refugee experience. Catherine, on active service in Afghanistan, reflects on the remarkable women who paved the way. First-class storytelling. An outstanding ensemble.

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