Palmerston Place Church
23 – 27 August
This was a very worthy, well-intentioned piece that failed to come completely alive and grab me, though it’s hard to work out quite why.
Edith Cavell (born 1865) was a nurse who in 1907, when she was in her forties, was put in charge of a pioneer training scheme for lay nurses in Brussels. Prior to this, nursing had been done by nuns who, though well-intentioned, had no specific training. By 1912 L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplomées was providing nurses for three hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens; by 1914 Edith was lecturing to doctors and nurses. When war broke out and Belgium was invaded by the Germans, some Allied soldiers were caught behind enemy lines: to be caught was to be killed. Edith, aware of the implications of her actions, began to shelter and nurse any soldiers who found their way to Brussels and, when they were fit to travel, accompanied them to the outskirts of the city, where a network of people would help them to reach safety in Holland and get to England. As a member of the Red Cross, she ‘should’ have remained neutral: but her argument was that she was a nurse first, and her duty was to tend every sick or wounded soldier who came her way, regardless of their nationality. She was betrayed by a collaborator, condemned to death as a traitor and shot at dawn on October 12 1915. Her last words to the chaplain who visited her the night before were “I expected my sentence and I believe it was just. Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”.
The show begins with the British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, reading the proposed public announcement of her execution over the phone to the then Prime Minister. He is then able to begin the story, and comment on it as the action progresses. Edith writes to her mother, which enables her to express her feelings and motivation. Her devoted assistant at the École, Sister Wilkins, is also able to advance the narrative and recount her own feelings: we also meet one of the soldiers Edith helped, some Germans, and the chaplain who was with her the night before her execution. The short scenes are linked by popular songs of the time and hymns which would have benefited from a more accomplished pianist and better singing.
The story was interesting and the acting not bad – why did the show fail to come alive for me? It felt rather as though it had been devised to put over a particular message, with hymns and some bible passages to underline the message; and though there were some accomplished actors on stage, they were not performing with the passion and energy I have seen in other shows this year, but rather preaching a sermon that had been well-rehearsed but failed to come alive. The show had the potential to be gripping: a pity that it wasn’t.