Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

A different side of war

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Anthea Hill (left) and Nicola Kawana star in Sister Anzac.
Anthea Hill (left) and Nicola Kawana star in Sister Anzac.

As the centenary commemorations of World War I loomed, theatre-maker Geoff Allen wanted to write a play about New Zealand's contribution, but he didn't want it to be a "boys over the top and war is hell" story.

Allen wanted a different story - something to add to the national conversation about our wartime contribution - so he looked to his own family history for inspiration.

"I remembered hearing my grandfather had been in a hospital in Lemnos, one of the Greek Islands, so I thought, 'if there was a hospital, there must have been nurses' and I thought that was interesting," he says.

Until recently, little had been written about New Zealand nurses in World War I. But Allen started researching, discovered Peter Rees' 2009 book The Other Anzacs: Nurses at War 1914-1918 and knew he had the right stuff for his play.

"I was amazed to find our nurses were at Gallipoli, stationed on the hospital ship Maheno about 100 yards off Anzac Cove," he says. "They were right on the frontlines and having that information gave me the setting for the play."

Since 2014, Sister Anzac has been performed at small venues: the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum in Devonport, where it debuted; the NZ Maritime Museum on Auckland's Waterfront and Te Pou - the home of Maori theatre in New Lynn.

Now, as Allen and director Amanda Rees (no relation to Peter) hoped, the play has made it to bigger theatres and is enjoying longer seasons. Sister Anzac is scheduled for five days at Q before returning to the Maritime Museum for a 10-day season. Performances at the Maritime Museum seat just 20. There is talk of taking it on tour to other naval bases in New Zealand.

The six-strong ensemble - Donogh Rees, Nicola Kawana, Anthea Hill, Alex Ellis, David Capstick and Jordan Blaikie - tell a story representative of NZ's first wartime nurses. They were initially unwanted by the military, and treated with little to no respect, but gained admiration for their bravery.

Eventually about 550 NZ nurses served overseas during that war. Hill, who plays Elsie Livesey, says like many of the soldiers, a number of the nurses sought adventure and excitement as well as the chance to serve their country.

The nurses had to fight for recognition of their rank and were often paid less than the soldiers and male orderlies they worked alongside. Arriving home, they received scant recognition for their often-daring efforts; their military ranking was not accorded until World War II. Many had lost boyfriends, husbands and family members; a number contracted diseases which dogged them for life.

For Allen, director Rees and the cast, it's been a process of discovery. Through theatre contacts, they met Barbara Gallagher, whose grandmother, the redoubtable Hilda Mary Steele, was one of these first 12 nurses selected for the Australian Army Nursing Service.

"Her feelings were always for the soldiers, the suffering they went through," Gallagher recalls. "Her stories fascinated me but, unfortunately, I didn't realise their importance at the time."

Nicola Kawana plays Hilda, the only character to take the name of a real-life heroine. Gallagher says seeing Kawana in rehearsals has been slightly unnerving because she looks like Hilda and has a number of similar mannerisms.

Rees has become so fascinated by stories such as the ones Gallagher shared, and the desire to keep them alive, that she started a podcast series on her Stark Theatre's website.

The story has altered since its first telling. Allen says being able to watch Sister Anzac at different times and in various settings has led him to "tweak" certain elements.

Does he worry we'll tire of hearing stories about World War I?

"There is the potential for that, but the play isn't fully about war," Allen says. "It's about the character of New Zealand women and the relationships they have with one another. I think it's quite a New Zealand trait to try to create humour when times are darkest and that's at work in this situation."

Hill says you can always tell when groups of nurses are in the audience. "There are certain jokes and moments that obviously ring true even today because they all laugh at the same time."

What: Sister Anzac
Where and when: Q Theatre, Loft; August 23-28; Maritime Museum, August 31-September 10

- NZ Herald

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