THE centenary of the First World War has been an opportunity for many untold stories to be told, forgotten heroes to be remembered and the many roles of women to be celebrated.
But few stories are more extraordinary and few women more remarkable than Dorothy Lawrence, a young journalist from Salisbury who made her way to the front line in 1915. Her story is told in Over The Top, by The Heroine Project, a theatre company set up by Lizzie Craker, who is a member of Bath’s Natural Theatre Company.
Lizzie worked with two actors, Naomi Zara, who plays Dorothy, and Eleanor Buchan, who plays everyone else, to find a creative way to celebrate the achievements of an energetic and courageous woman.
Dorothy lived in Salisbury Close with her guardian, a wealthy old lady,whose main concern was not to be involved with any sort of scandal. But Dorothy wanted to be a war correspondent – at a time when such a job was impossible for women, and almost impossible for men, because of the so-called DORA (Defence of the Realm) regulations.
Undeterred by the unwillingness of Fleet Street editors to commission her to go, Dorothy went to France anyway. Cycling across northern France from Paris she met up with some Royal Engineers, borrowed a uniform, cut her hair and found a ruined cottage to shelter in.
From here, deafened by the constant crump of the guns, she was able to explore and experience something of the reality of life at the front. Thanks to a friendly Sapper, Tom Gunn, she got some food. But the cold and damp undermined her strength and she became ill and eventually was repatriated.
Lizzie Craker’s researches uncovered the sad story of the last 40 years of Dorothy’s life – shut up in an asylum, where she received no visitors and where she eventually died in 1964.
So the play, Over The Top, could have been a story of broken dreams and the defeat of a remarkable woman. Instead, The Heroine Project celebrates Dorothy and the fact that she did, finally, after the war, publish an account of her experiences and adventures.
The end of Dorothy’s life emerges in an exhibition displayed at the theatre and in the informative question and answer session after the play..
The production uses cabaret and period style music with the versatile Buchan, dressed as a music-hall style Master of Ceremonies, playing Dorothy’s alter ego and inner voice, her guardian, sundry editors, military men and a French bar owner.
Zara portrays the complex heroine, excitable and imaginative, self-doubting and angry, a young woman who broke convention, was ignored and forgotten by an uncaring society, but whose spirit lives on in every woman who is prepared to push boundaries and explore what is possible.
It was a curious coincidence to see this play on the day that the director of a major tennis tournament could still say that women tennis players “should get down on their knees to thank” Federer and Nadal. As Serena Williams said, this was deeply offensive to women. Sexism and discrimination are only a hairs-breadth away even in 2016.
Over The Top is part of Theatre Fest West which continues at the Playhouse, Salisbury Arts Centre, the Pound at Corsham and Trowbridge Town Hall until 2nd April.
Lizzie Craker would like to hear from anyone who has any more information about Dorothy Lawrence and her life. Visit www.heroineprojectpresents.com