Rose Miranda Hall and Lila Palmer
Palmer and Hall Music
Army @ The Fringe in Association with Summerhall
As the publicity materials for the show proclaim, this is "a herstory" rather than a history, and it most certainly is; taking a solidly female viewpoint on two different conflicts over a hundred years apart.
In 1915, we meet Flora Sandes (Teiya Kasahara), a real-life nurse who would later join the Serbian forces as a soldier; contrastingly, there is concurrently another story being told, set during in modern-day Afghanistan, about soldier and young mother Jo (Simone Ibbett-Brown). In both scenarios, the women meet Simmons (Lila Palmer), a nurse in one timeline, a medic in the other, through which the nature of friendship, battle weariness, frustration, grief and boredom are all explored in various contexts.
As the subject for an opera, Dead Equal is a fascinating departure from the usual concept of operatic storytelling. It's more of a tone poem than a conventional story, which to some extent is part of the credit and the misstep of the piece as it occasionally gets more than a little bogged down in the mundanity of soldiery, and it's occasionally a bit unexpected to hear people operatically soaring on topics such as breast chafing from badly fitted flak armour or spotty WiFi reception. But the counter-side of that is that this is a reflection of real people and real concerns which often go unspoken and unmentioned, the result of which is that, while it's perhaps a new insight to those who have never heard or considered such things, it also has the effect of highlighting that this is a show about ideas rather than a narrative.
That's not to lessen the import of the artistry and effort at work here. Kasahara, Ibbett-Brown and Palmer (who also penned the libretto) each excel themselves in flooding the theatre space with their incredible vocal talents, occasionally in a manner that makes it difficult to exactly decipher what is being said, which may be due to the venue's acoustics and a lack of subtitling, this being an English-language opera. It's only an occasional concern, but one that needs mentioning, as it combined with the occasionally rambunctious nature of the Rose Miranda Hall's music mean that what story there is and particulars therein can be lost in the mix. Never is this more clear than when the play unexpectedly flits into spoken dialogue for a section, which reinforces both how invested the audience has become in the characters but also how much they've been straining to follow some of what's going on.
It's a bold, sometimes beautiful and ultimately moving modern opera, highlighting a side of military conflict that is often overlooked. It could use a little sanding of the edges, but as it stands it's a powerful insight into a woman's experience in warfare; and, as the title suggests, the costs of equality sometimes being the highest.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan