THEATRE: Trench angels saluted

TOUGH TIMES: Kate Skinner as Sister Florence Whiting in Through These Lines.WHEN writer and producer Cheryl Ward toured NSW last year looking for venues to stage her World War I play Through These Lines, her immediate Newcastle choice was Fort Scratchley.
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She walked into a casemate, a vaulted concrete chamber beneath the late 19th century fort’s gun emplacements that was intended for use in sheltering troops and stores.

It was a perfect setting for the play’s story, which shows an Australian nurse moving from one battlefront to another to care for wounded soldiers between 1914 and 1918.

The nurse, Sister Florence Whiting, is stationed at various times in concrete bunkers and on hospital ships, interacting with her nursing colleagues and the military men she meets and treats. Florence and a soldier who was wounded at Gallipoli fall in love while he is hospitalised.

Through These Lines is being staged at Fort Scratchley from July 24 to August 5 as part of the Civic Theatre’s subscription series.

While the Civic’s subscription works are generally staged in its 1500-seat theatre or the adjacent and smaller Playhouse, Cheryl Ward submitted her Through These Lines script to the management and received the go-ahead to use Fort Scratchley.

Many of the NSW seasons will be in RSL clubs, but other historic buildings with a military connection will also house the play.

The Trial Bay Jail at South-West Rocks, near Kempsey, where German nationals were interned during World War I, is a venue. The Lithgow Small Arms Factory, like the jail now a museum, is another. Brought into operation in 1912, the Lithgow facility manufactured rifles and bayonets for Australian forces during World War I.

Cheryl Ward was inspired to write Through These Lines after former concrete munitions tunnels at Sydney Harbour’s Middle Head were opened to the public in 2008.

Ward grew up near the locked tunnels and, with other teenagers, managed to climb into them on occasions.

When they became available for public arts works, she looked for a theatre subject, with photos of nurses in a concrete-walled room in France during World War I leading her to research their lives and work and to develop the first version of Through These Lines.

The play had a sold-out three-week season in one of the munitions rooms in 2010, with audience members often in tears as they heard the nurses talking about their experiences in words taken verbatim from letters World War I nurses had written.

Ward has reworked the script since that initial staging and, in her words, ‘‘it has become a much more personal journey for Sister Florence Whiting’’.

‘‘It is a more human story,’’ she said.

‘‘The nurses behind the battlefronts were almost anonymous people. They treated thousands of patients, but half the time they didn’t know their names.’’

The cast is led by Kate Skinner as Florence Whiting, with the other actors playing three or more roles.

Cheryl Ward is one of the actors, with her characters including the matron in charge of the story’s nursing team. The other players are Rebecca Barbera, Gareth Rickards, Gary Clementson, and Christian Charisiou. Mary-Anne Gifford directs.

The Fort Scratchley casemate will hold 60 audience members.

Ward said the 80-minute work, which is played without an interval, makes extensive use of stretchers and has props including tents, wooden huts and ship features as the story moves between a troop ship taking soldiers and nurses to Europe, Cairo, a hospital ship, Lemnos and the Western Front.

The audience will be greeted at the casemate door by the actors at the starting time and brought into the venue. Latecomers won’t be admitted.

Through These Lines, a co-production by Turnaround Productions and No Rest for the Wicked, has a preview at 7.30pm on Thursday, July 24. There will be performances from Friday, July 25, to Tuesday, August 5, with shows each Friday at 7.30pm, Saturday and Sunday at 3pm and 7.30pm, Monday at 7.30pm, Tuesday at 3pm and 7.30pm, and Thursday at 7.30pm. Tickets: $38, concession $32, subscriber $28, with a preview price of $25. Bookings: Civic Ticketek, 49291977.

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