Discussing history and gender with Over the Top director Lizzie Crarer.
It’s 1915 and Europe is at war. A young woman named Dorothy Lawrence — orphan, aspiring journalist and free spirit — makes the decision to disguise herself as a man in order to reach the frontline in northern France, guided by a desire to experience for herself the realities of armed conflict and report from the trenches.
These experiences formed the basis of her account, the snappily-titled Sapper Dorothy, The Only English woman Soldier in the Royal Engineers 51st Division, 79th Tunnelling Co., During the First World War, published in 1919. But Dorothy was admitted to an asylum in 1925 and spent the rest of her life institutionalised. She died in obscurity in 1964, buried in an unmarked grave.
Why was this remarkable person written out of history and what we can learn from her story? This is the departure point for the theatre piece Over the Top, which will be performed at Hamilton House this coming Thursday, a collaboration between CoResist and Bath-based theatre company The Heroine Project Presents.
I spoke to director Lizzie Crarer to get an insight into how the project came about. Over Skype, she tells me that the play was in part a reaction against the “badly drawn or stereotypical representations of femininity” which she had to endure in the early stages of her career as a theatre performer. Out of a search for rebellious and empowering narratives led by women, The Heroine Project Presents was born. For Lizzie, Dorothy’s story stood out because:
the narrative voice in that book completely cut against what I thought a woman in 1915 would sound like. And there’s something really exuberant and untamed about the way she writes, and this sense of this really vibrant personality which didn’t fit in with conventional ideas of young ladyhood.
Lizzie put a considerable amount of research into Dorothy’s life: her early childhood raised by a single mum who was also a musician; her exposure to the culture of the Victorian music hall; her experiences as an orphan raised by a wealthy guardian in Salisbury (Lizzie’s home town); and her later life as a woman experiencing mental ill health and isolation. Music in particular is central to the story. As Lizzie points out:
it’s a way of showing the progression of time through the story. So we start off very much in that music hall world and then there’s a brush with a bit of Modernism in the middle and then the show ends with just a hint of early Jazz, which is a nod to the historical fact that in one of her letters, Dorothy talks about maybe going to America as a journalist.
Alongside this attention to historical detail, Lizzie is strongly committed to engaging audiences in the creative process, mentioning that: “I’m really keen to have an educational strand to what I do and to include people and share the process [of making theatre]”. She also felt that Hamilton House would be “an excellent space in which to connect with an audience who were actively interested in some of the issues which the show raises about gender, about mental health, about conflict”.
As the centenary of The Battle of the Somme was observed recently, the play offers a timely challenge to romanticised narratives of the First World War, which have overwhelmingly come from a male perspective. In today’s polarised political climate, these conversations are especially acute:
I think any opportunity to reflect on and get inside the experience of conflict is absolutely relevant at this particular juncture, where we are faced with a hugely conflicted society: fifty per cent of the population at odds with the other fifty per cent on fundamental, ideological issues.
The play is a way to reflect on these larger issues all through the prism of one woman’s experience.