Image: Anthea Hill, left, and Alex Ellis in Sister Anzac
The year is 1914. War engulfs the European continent. Thousands of New Zealand soldiers are sent to help fight against the Central Powers, led by Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Along with the male soldiers heading to the other side of the world are large numbers of women, who have to pay their own way to get to Europe and the majority of whom have little idea of the horrors that await them. But they are keen to make a positive difference nonetheless.
Such is the backdrop for Sister Anzac. The play, by Geoff Allen, focuses on the experiences of four female nurses and two male soldiers who head over to Europe to serve in World War I. Directed by Amanda Rees, it probably comes as no surprise – given the subject matter – that the play is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.
But what’s maybe more surprising: the women are also incredibly kickass.
“We definitely feel we have to accurately honour those women, but it’s not a burden,” she explains.
“It’s just a joy to bring them to life.”
With the four women of four different ages, they are all fully-dimensional characters – something Rees says is intentional because of the tendency for women to be stereotyped on stage. A production two years in the making, Rees says the “gutsy quality of the Kiwi women,” depicted in the play resonates just as strongly today as it did a century ago.
“It’s a story that is really important for women,” she says.
One of the lead roles – that of Matron Corkingdale – is played by Rees’ sister, Donogh Rees. The eldest of the nurses, she says preparing for the role was an interesting experience because of all that she learned – such as the fact many of the women who went over to the war had to pay their own way out of pocket to go, and even made their own uniforms.
“Part of our understanding was understanding how big of a challenge it was to them. Because there’s four different women of four different ages, there’s someone everyone can relate to.”
And there was another aspect of her character she particularly wished to highlight.
“A woman is a woman is a woman. You’re looking for the essential truth of that human being.”
Sister Anzac debuted in 2014 at the Davenport Navy Museum. But with shows in Hamilton and Auckland on the cards this season, both the Rees sisters say the time has come to bring the play to a larger audience. It’s important to do so, they say, because as oppressive as things were for women in the early twentieth century, they say they’re mystified more progress has not been made in achieving equality since then.
Donogh Rees says, far from being depressing, the play is quite lighthearted, peppered with moments of joy and brevity amid the very serious events of the time.
“It’s like any good story. It tugs at the heartstrings and you have a good laugh.”
But as powerful as Sister Anzac is, she says it’s nothing compared to how kickass the women who went over to help out in World War I were.
“The balance of history [is important],” she explains.
“The contribution of these women were just as important as the men. It makes you realise what we still are as human beings. They were so gutsy, and so strong, and they made do. And they coped together.”
If that's not kickass, it's hard to know what is.
Sister Anzac will show at The Meteor in Hamilton on Saturday, August 20 at 7.30pm. It will run at the Q Theatre Loft in Auckland from August 23-28, and at Auckland’s Maritime Museum from August 31 to September 10. The Maritime Museum performances will be “in promenade,” meaning the audience will follow the performers through the galleries of the museum.