I played the suffragette pathologist Helen Chambers in an immersive drama recreating the all female hospital that cared for wounded soldiers during the First World War. Endell Street hospital was set up in 1915 and lead by Louisa Garret Anderson and had female doctors, nurses, porters and laboratory staff. We recreated this hospital in The Swiss church, Covent Garden, London. The audience experienced 40 minutes of the life of the hospital and were walked round the different parts of the hospital. In 1915 The War Office saw that eminent women doctors were going to France to work in hospitals so to keep these skills in the UK they asked Louisa Anderson to lead an all women’s hospital. This unique experiment demonstrated that women could run a hospital.
Being part of a creative process was fascinating for me. In our first sessions we identified characters and I imagined being a young nurse working but also being in love. I talked about the daily rhythms of a hospital with the patients having ward rounds in the mornings and medicines being given in the afternoon. Visitors came in the afternoon. When we practised stretcher carrying I emphasised that these are heavy and the team needed a leader to give instructions. I talked about the smells of being in hospital, blood, vomit, people and showed people how to bandage and inspect limbs.
The play imagined a War office inspection in different locations, the entrance, the linen room, a pathology laboratory in a corridor, the office and the ward. My lab was in the corridor of the hospital because they were so short of space. I had three young nurse assistants. Infection was a major problem then, so I looked down an old microscope looking for bacteria on the slides. My assistants recorded the results and washed the slides. I had glass tubes with colorful urine specimens and I discussed the pathologies that these might represent. The play then moved to the ward, here the soldiers were sitting in different groups. I joined one group who were playing cards and trying to avoid having their bandages changed. When the nurses were giving out the medicines on the ward round I showed them the correct way to do this, giving tablets to the soldiers. The ward scene captured the different experiences of the soldiers and the audience heard different versions, depending on which bed they were around. One young man was very depressed and nihilistic, another was discovered to be two timing his girlfriend in a rather dramatic revelation.
We ended the play standing under the wall on which were projected scenes for the hospital capturing the letters that the women wrote from there, the recollections of the male patients and photos. We marched out singing the suffragette anthem. The space of the Swiss church was perfectly suited to our play. The church has been stripped down to a large space with light pouring in from high windows. The past provenance of the church can be guessed from the plaques that are still on the walls.
I enjoyed the team work with young actors most of whom left drama school recently. The five older established actors brought their expertise and different styles to the production. There are many other people who support the production, the costumes team were keen to get details right. The research work included a film being made about the suffragette hospital and this also deepened the experience. We were photographed by a professional photographer during the rehearsals. I was surprised at how much I identified with Helen Chambers, my character and found it moving to read her obituary in the British Medical Journal. She does not speak in the play and her obituary mentions how she disliked speaking. She did important work on the treatment of infections and then cervical cancer. As a woman doctor she wa s clearly picking up on topical female problems in her career. It was also moving to be recreating the work that the suffragette surgeons had done.
So my first venture into acting was close to home, recreating a hospital pathologist and for a piece of history relating to both the first world war and the development of women’s rights.
Obituary Helen Chambers 1953 234-5
Deeds Not Words. Writer Liz Rigby, Director Kate Valentine ,Producer Alison Ramsey.