The Handmaidens of Death – WWI Theatre of Its Time

Even plays were buried by the bombs of World War I. The Handmaidens of Death, though written in 1918, had not been performed until recently, likely because it failed to pass by the censors that read and approved every British play performed until 1968. Though it explores themes that are surprisingly progressive for 1918, the year the play was written, in 2016, the characters are too many and too simple. There’s only so much that can be done with a bad script, and The Handmaidens of Death prove that some things should stay buried.

Despite the significant effort of Flatpacktheatre and Big Blue Egg Productions, this production is unable to breathe life into The Handmaidens of Death.

With the men all gone to the war, the women have been left to ‘man’ the munitions factories and other, traditionally male-dominated, work. The story follows the women of one such factory, who are brought together by a common goal: they really want the men to come home so they can get married and have babies. The play’s title, it seems, is meant to be ironic, and the play invests some time into exploring the contradiction behind women, those who bring new humans into the world, making bombs, which send humans out of the world. That is the deepest level this script operates on. In the second half, a note the women pack into the head of the shells they make leads to unexpected visitors. The identity of these visitors might be a horrible surprise, but is rendered obvious by the juxtaposition of the two scenes. Though there is some pessimistic thoughts about the future, and more thinking about the women’s role than you’d get in most plays of the era, the script is simply 98 years too late.

The production is unable to make up for its material. Technically, the play is honed: a projector provides a backdrop, which changes smoothly as the action demands, and costume is perfect, with grimy jumpsuits complemented by the occasional fancy, feminine hat. Lights are thoughtfully balanced, especially in the second half, where they struck the balance of leaving the soldier in the dark, but still visible as a silhouette, while illuminating the faces of the women.

The actors do what they can with what they have, but, unfortunately, that isn’t much. Though each possesses demonstrable technical proficiency, the characters are simply uninteresting. There isn’t much to be done to make the love-struck simpleton or the posh ladies more than two-dimensional.

Despite the significant effort of Flatpacktheatre and Big Blue Egg Productions, this production is unable to breathe life into The Handmaidens of Death.

Reviews by Bennett Bonci

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The Blurb

A recently discovered but engaging melodrama, written during the final months of the Great War. A group of female munitions workers facing tensions over the shortage of men are confronted with the ultimate outcome of their work. Written by a woman under a male pseudonym, the play was forgotten as wearied public opinion moved on in the aftermath of war. It throws a theatrical sidelight on contemporary attitudes towards these women – the women that fill the shells that load the guns that... Heroes? Victims? Or witless handmaidens?

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