Women in war

05 July 2019 by Claire Hunter

Leith Arundel

Actor Leith Arundel has dedicated almost 15 years of her life to telling the stories of women in war at the Australian War Memorial.

“It’s the best acting job in the world,” she said. “And I just keep coming back to that. People come here to pay their respects, and we are all here for those people who don’t want to forget.”

At various times throughout the year, Arundel presents two moving and powerful performances about the experiences of women in war, Radio silence and Last letters.

“I do the best job I can, every time,” she said.  “The people who died deserve that, and the people who come to pay their respects deserve that.”

Written and directed by Alana Valentine, Radio silence is inspired by the experiences of a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force radio operator stationed in Britain during the Second World War.

Arundel plays Violet, a WAAF wireless operator on duty during a Bomber Command raid over Germany.

Radio silence is very disciplined,” Arundel said. “She’s a very formal character, and I have this amazing co-star on stage with me because I’m talking to the Lancaster bomber ‘G for George’.”

Leith Arundel

Dressed smartly in her WAAF uniform, Violet has her hair pulled back neatly. She wears headphones and carries with her a small radio mic as she shares her thoughts and fears while anxiously awaiting the return of the bomber and its young crew.

“The writing captures the suspense of the waiting that they endured, and I try to recreate that,” Arundel said.

“The interminable waiting would drive you mad, and the women had to deal with that constantly.

“I had an older gentleman come up to me one time after a performance and say, ‘You look just like my wife when we met.’

“I can’t even describe how much that meant.”

In Last letters, Arundel plays Sister Elsie Blackwell, an Australian nurse returning home after years of service on Gallipoli and the Western Front.

Written and directed by Mary Rachel Brown, the performance is inspired by the personal accounts of military nurses serving in the First World War.

“We rehearsed it for two weeks and we cried every day,” Arundel said. “It was just so intense, and so beautiful.”

As the performance opens, the contents of Elsie’s nurse’s kit is spread out on a table, a nurse’s cape hanging on a stand nearby. She arrives to pack two small cases, pausing to read from letters and diaries as she recounts the adventures and horrors of her experiences.

“The women were so close to the front line, living in the mud,” Arundel said. “Just reading through those lines, it’s so intensely powerful and moving.”

Arundel puts her heart and soul into every performance.

“Every show I do, I do it like it’s my last,” she said. “The shows are so beautifully written, and as an actor it’s just very special to be involved in something that is so good and so worthwhile.

“My great uncle died on the Burma–Thailand Railway, and my grandfather, Harry Ward, was a prisoner of war in Changi and on the railway for three years. My family didn’t know if he was coming back, and that impact of them not knowing where he was has affected our whole family. So for me to be doing this is very special, and that’s another reason why I keep doing it.”

Leith Arundel in Last letters

For Arundel, it’s important to share these stories of women in war and make a personal connection with the audience.

“I’ve been so lucky to be able to do this,” Arundel said. 

“I’ve had women come up after Radio silence and tell me how they used to dress. And if I don’t fold the blanket properly in Last letters, they tell me.

“So I have to get it right, and I have to get it right every time for the people who were there.

“When I get on stage and the audience is there, they go quiet, and they just get it; they get why we are all there, and I just love that.

“The stories mean so much to people, and I give the best performance I can every show.

“I have to do my family proud … and that’s what the visitors deserve, and what those women deserve.”

To Arundel, the Memorial is particularly special.

“Every Australian looks to the Australian War Memorial before they look to Parliament House,” she said.

“It is the heart of this country – the only thing that cohesively brings us together – and I get to be a part of that. I don’t ever forget how special that is.

“For so many of the people I meet, it’s the trip of a lifetime, or a pilgrimage that they make every few years. It’s just so important to them, and means so much, and that’s why I’m still doing the performances.

“It’s theatre for all the right reasons.”

See actor Leith Arundel perform Last letters in Anzac Hall on 4 and 5 January 2020. For more details, visit here.