Review: Dead Equal, Army @ the fringe

Three women go to war. One says ‘I can shoot, I can fight, I can fix an engine… I choose to live this war…’. The second is gym-fit and in love with the idea of soldiers as ‘beautiful deadly killing machines…’. The third finds her vocation in the medical corps: ‘I didn’t choose killing, I chose healing…’. They all fall in love with one another. Moral: being a soldier equals personal fulfilment. Join up! This message is fortified by the fact that the show takes place in a real Army Reserve Centre staffed by real soldiers. Except… it’s an opera. Are the Army using opera to recruit women to the ranks?

There are three glorious sopranos and a full orchestral score, all brass and wind and drums, furnished even with rhythmic machine guns, and played by a real military band. The action is set, bizarrely, in WW1 Serbia, where soldiers from Afganistan wander in with laptops. One character manages to exist in both time zones, despite them being a century apart, like a twentieth century everywoman.

The fact that almost every word is set in the highly-charged medium of John Adams-y, Nixon in China-ish recitative gives you a feeling of access to the emotions of the characters in an extraordinary way. But what do they disclose? It seems that Army life for women comprises one long unreciprocated lesbian crush. For actual sex they want ‘a dick without a bloke’, as one of them sings exquisitely. And what do they learn? The final, acoustically ravishing trio is a litany of recruitment cliché of the worst kind: being a soldier is ‘being alive’ and going ‘beyond the test’.

And yet… the voices are so great, and the presence of these singers so compelling that you can’t help searching to locate your sympathy somewhere. At one point the medic discloses that her childhood was spent in care, and there is a rumble of gunfire. That got me. For a moment warfare seemed a fit metaphor for social oppression and mental illness.

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