Dhaka, Bangladesh
The audition was an assault course: women seize combat roles in new play

The audition was an assault course: women seize combat roles in new play

In 2016, the ban on women in the British army fighting in close combat roles was lifted. Although women were already engaged in some frontline duties, they had previously been prevented from serving in the infantry and in tank units. In her new play Close Quarters, at Sheffield Theatres, writer Kate Bowen explores not just the considerable physical demands on women who sign up for these roles but also the emotional and psychological challenges of navigating an environment designed for and previously populated by men. "What kind of people would choose to do that?" she asks. Bowen spoke to men and women from different branches of the army - some currently serving, some who have left. Her play tells the story of three female squaddies. One aims to make herself indistinguishable from the boys. Another is determined to tough it out and be herself, while the third feels she has to be beyond reproach as she will be held to a higher standard than men in her unit. "The number of women who could get into the infantry is small and they would be athletes," says Bowen. The intensely physical nature of the job is something she and director Kate Wasserberg are keen to get across. The audition process was designed to test the actors' athleticism. The cast - including Ruby Barker, Chloe- Ann Tylor and Sophie Melville - had to do an "insane assault course", says Wasserberg. Obviously, she adds, they're actors, not squaddies, but they needed to be able to do a certain number of push-ups and pull-ups, otherwise it would have felt "like a betrayal of those women". The hot, humid atmosphere in the rehearsal rooms of Wasserburg's touring theatre company, Out of Joint, in north London, is testament to the amount of work she's putting her cast through. There are other issues, of course, that women serving in the army need to deal with. "No matter how welcome they are made to feel," Bowen explains, "they will be vastly in the minority." Her primary objective was to write a play about these women's experience as soldiers; sexism is just one aspect of that and far from the most interesting. That said, "We can't have a play where there's no hostility to women. It happens in all work environments," she adds. Close Quarters, Bowen says, is also a coming of age play. The infantry is "a young person's game". Her characters are "at a time in their lives when they want to experience everything. They want to eat the world." The play is about class and race, too, says Wasserberg, all the different factors that make people choose a career in the military. It's also, laughs Bowen, pretty filthy. "Which rings true with army folk." The casting process has been rewarding, adds Wasserberg. "Woman after woman after woman saying, 'No one ever writes these parts for us.'" There seems to be an increasing appetite - or rather an increasing willingness to commission - stories that foreground women's experiences and achievements at the moment. But Bowen remains cautious. Things can always slide backwards, she says. "I'm hopeful, but cynical." Wasserberg reckons audiences are "way ahead" of the industry. "People [in the industry] abide by rules that are to do with being white, middle-class and male. But if you take a play that isn't like that to audiences and it's brilliant, they don't care. Diversity is not about worthiness, it's about quality." In 2017, Wasserberg, who founded the Cardiff fringe theatre the Other Room, was appointed co-artistic director of Out of Joint alongside founder Max Stafford-Clark. Last year, he stepped down and it was later revealed that he was forced to do so after a formal complaint alleging that he had made lewd comments to a member of staff. The company now has a culture, in the office and in the rehearsal room, of "respectful collapsed hierarchy - everybody's voice is valid, everyone is involved in making the show." She says she is mindful of anyone who appears to be struggling. "If I don't have their trust," she explains, "I don't have anything."

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