(Un)decorated is the opening event from the seventh ‘Serbian Month in Great Britain′, which this year runs between 13 January and 28 February. It’s a drama set on the Balkan front in 1915, and at its heart are the stories of three women: British adventuress Flora Sandes (1876—1956); Serbian shepherdess-turned-fighter Milunka Savić (1890—1973) and the figure of a desperate and grieving Serbian mother. Both Savić and Sandes, real historical figures, broke the conventions of ‘appropriate’ behaviour for women in their day: Sandes was first a nurse then a soldier and Savić managed to pass herself off as a man throughout the First Balkan War and into the Second – until a grenade wound to the chest let her secret out. Both fought as soldiers in WWI, in the Serbian Army’s Iron Regiment, so-called for its apparent invincibility. Women across cultures and through time have rarely participated in war as combatants: the matriarchies of Greek myths aside, the most notable aspect of female soldiers is how few there have been. Sandes and Savić both lived extraordinary lives, even by today’s standards, battling great odds to fight as equals alongside men.
Against this wartime backdrop, the dramatist, Duška Radosavljević, has created a rich narrative of personal stories based on memoirs, interviews and the biographies of Flora and Milunka. The drama, directed by Maja Milatović-Ovadia, unfolds over 90 minutes, in an uninterrupted performance. While the warp of the story is undoubtedly the lives of Savić and Sandes, the weft is the lone voice of the mother, a figure whose desolation is complete by the end of the play, all her sons killed or dead. The tempo of the play is set by the different threads of the story as they start to unfold: first we meet Flora, then Milunka (as Milun), then back to Flora, then the mother. The actors are on stage throughout the piece, each performing their main character and then switching to a supporting role as the next narrative progresses. Flora we meet at her first public-speaking engagement: a benefit matinee, while on leave from the front in London. Then Milun/Milunka begins her tale, cutting her hair, binding her breast and dressing in men’s clothes to enlist in the Serbian army. She fights in the two Balkan wars until her worst fears are realised: surgery to that bullet wound leading inevitably to the discovery that Milun is actually Milunka. The threads of these two women’s lives eventually intertwine and they meet for the first time when both are hospitalized in Bizerta for their wounds.
Radosavljević lifts events verbatim from Sandes’ biographies and Milunka’s reported life. When Savić tries to enlist to fight, first the Colonel, then the General tells her to join the nursing corps. Standing to attention, Savić insists on serving her country as combatant or nothing. Told by the General to return the next day, Milunka delivers her defiant and now-famous riposte: ‘I will wait!’ Legend has it that he only made her stand an hour before sending her back to the infantry.
The simplicity and sparseness of the set allow the different narratives to breathe and lend them a notably uncluttered quality – something that’s vital as this piece requires close listening. Laura Harding as Flora and Cristina Catalina as Milunka both convey the tenaciousness and sheer energy of these women, while Vesna Vujat is always moving as the figure of the grief-stricken mother.
Sandes and Savić proved that in exceptional circumstances considerations of gender could be overturned for political expediency. Savić fought for her country throughout the First World War, receiving honours from several governments for her distinguished service, and today – despite her death in relative obscurity in 1973 – is recognised as the most awarded female combatant in the history of warfare. Sandes, meanwhile, is the only British woman to have seen front line action in the Great War. Like Savić, she was to spend much of her postwar life in Belgrade, though dying in England in 1956.
Appropriately enough, (Un)decorated paints a picture, among other things, of the friendship between the UK and Serbia. The premiere this week, supported by the Serbian City Club, the British Embassy in Belgrade and the Serbian Embassy in London, is sadly its only performance during Serbian Month 2015: though there are plans thereafter to send it on tour in the UK and in Serbia. Let’s hope this happens, as (un)decorated will whet your appetite to know even more about these two remarkable women’s lives.
(un)decorated was part of Serbian Month 2015, supported by the Serbian City Club, London.