Four actors; three female, and one male who plays the multiple roles of husband, sweetheart, brother and the iconic role of ‘the unknown soldier’ perform The Girls in Grey.
The play tells the stories of three Australian Army nurses during World War I. In Egypt, Elsie, Grace and Alice marvel at the splendours of the sunset over the Sphinx, before being confronted by the onslaught of casualties from the Dardanelles. Later they face the freezing winters and muddy sludge of the Western Front, baring witness to the horrors of war and the devastation of the men they nurse in the casualty clearing stations and the base hospitals.
Elsie always looks for the brighter side. Her infectious sense of humour disguises a fierce determination to follow her husband, Syd, to war. Courageous Alice is drawn to adventure, unexpectedly falling in love with Harry, a lieutenant, whose fate will be determined at the dreadful battle of Fromelles. Sturdy, serious Grace is the demanding yet compassionate Matron whose calm resolve is gradually eroded by the anguish of war.
Shift Theatre’s production of The Girls in Grey commemorates the service of the nurses who served in World War I and seeks to inform, educate and preserve the voices of these women for a new generation. The work is an interpretation of the important role they played in that terrible conflict and a tribute to their dedication and commitment to the care of the soldiers so fondly dubbed, ‘our boys’.
Our interest in the subject and its potential for a play began nearly two years ago and was initially sparked from an Anzac Day speech (written by Helen’s sister) for a local member of parliament. Initially, the source of the content was Janet Butler’s paper in the Journal of Australian Studies, which discussed the experiences of Australian nurses on the island of Lemnos in 1915. Time jump to two years later and draft seventeen of a script that has been carefully researched through an examination of the diaries, letters, post-war narratives and a range of other material that illuminates the experiences of these women.
Throughout our writing and research we were acutely aware of the sensitivity around war history and its interpretation and we garnered feedback throughout the process from both military historians and theatre professionals as to the authenticity and impact of the work.
As writers, the volume of material and the best way to tell the stories often overwhelmed us. Many questions arose. How to capture these extraordinary moments we were reading about? How to lift the voices out of the diaries and weave them into a text that is both dynamic and authentic. How to condense so many vital moments spanning such a vast landscape in one act? The diaries have been the key. Their clarity immediately drew us into another world and we were privy to a portrait both intimate and revealing
The Girls in Grey – In Performance
We have been fortunate that the core group of actors and the director have been committed to the project since its first development season at La Mama in November 2010 and then at The Shrine of Remembrance in May 2011.
This year the play opens on Anzac Day and will run for a three week season. It is on the VCE curriculum as part of drama studies, and there has been an expression of interest from a Canadian theatre company regarding the possibility of a season of commemorative works in 2014. There are plans to take Girls in Grey to Canberra later this year to coincide with the Nurses exhibition at the Australian War Memorial, followed by tours to regional Victoria and nationally.
As an independent company with a big vision for the longevity of the play, Shift Theatre is currently awaiting the outcome of funding applications. However, regardless of the result, we remain committed to this important project – the theme of which seems to be resonating strongly with many organisations and individuals.