Every Anzac Day we hear about the men who serve in war – whether stories of someone's great-grandfather, uncle or son, and we watch them or a family representative march proudly down St Kilda Road Melbourne to the Shrine of Remembrance.
However, for the past century 'Lest We Have Forgotten' the women doctor's who served at war. Thanks to the research of Susan J Neuhaus and Sharon Mascal-Dare published in 'Not for Glory: A century of service by medical women to the Australian Army and its Allies', the true stories of female medics are now visible. Inspired by these women, Carolyn Bock and Helen Hopkins, co-founders of The Shift Theatre wrote and produced Hallowed Ground – Women Doctors in War for the stage.
Directed by Catherine Hill, the play focuses on eight women who served in World War I to the present day as doctor's in the Australian Army and for other foreign services. Although each woman's story is unique, there are common themes – male Army members refusing to be treated by female doctor's, deemed inferior to their male counterparts and the Australian Army refusing to employ women doctor's. Despite these obstacles, each woman was determined to assist the wounded in war, in horrific and challenging terrains across the world, in Europe, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor.
The stories of Dr Lilian (Helen Hopkins) is the story of a female couple who toured the world through war – one as a doctor, and her partner Mary (Carolyn Bock) as a volunteer ambulance driver. Despite refusal by the Australian Army to employ Lilian as a doctor, she and Mary served in The Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Services working in Corsica, France, Malta, Romania, Russia, Salonika and Serbia, and then later retired to Brisbane in Australia. Both actresses play multiple women in the story Mary/Jo/Jacqui (Carolyn Bock) and Lilian/Mac (Helen Hopkins) across World Wars I and II. An interesting part of this story is how doctor's often had to improvise and create their own treatments for malaria when anti-malaria drugs were in low supply or did not even exist.
The story of Tam (Chi Nguyen) is particularly moving, a doctor who served during the Vietnam war and then escapes as a refugee to Australia on a boat. Her story is narrated in both Vietnamese and English with captioning (Bronwyn Pringle) which makes the bilingual performance accessible and draws attention to the unique and detailed set design (Meg White).
The stage is embellished with a number of screens, which visually tell the story of the different terrains and landscapes of land wars. The different terrains are composed of materials typically used and encountered by medics when dealing with wounded soldiers - bandages, syringes, pins, gauze pads, and even bullets. This is another fascinating layer to the stories of these amazing women over 100 years.
The stories of Catherine and Carol (Jean Goodwin) transport the audience into the contemporary wars experienced by women doctors in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor. Now acknowledged as a profession for women, the Australian Army does employ female doctors. Through the eyes of Catherine and Carol we learn about the modern approaches to medicine in war, and also the camaraderie and passion women doctors build when working together in extreme conditions for a common cause.
Hallowed Ground Women Doctors in War by The Shift Theatre
On the night I attended I the show, I was privileged to meet some of the actual women doctors whose stories were told in the show. They all had smiles on their faces, and you would never know they had survived serving in war. I also noticed several current serving members in attendance, which shows these stories also ring true for them, and the performance provides a voice for those whose traumatic experiences remain untold or unrecognised.
The Shift Theatre hopes to tour Hallowed Ground Women Doctors in War across Australia in the future. In the meantime, there's still time to see the show now at La Mama Courthouse in Carlton until 19 August.