ABOUT five years ago, Hollywood actress Mary Jane Wells was working on a film by director Nicole Conn when a woman approached her with a film script. “She said there was a part for me,” says Wells, who trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Reading the script by Danna Davis (not her real name), a woman who had served in the US Army for ten years, Wells sensed the story was real, not fiction.
“There was a definite sense of catharsis,” Wells says. “This was someone who really needed to tell her story. It was coming out of her like a force.”

When Wells verified the details with US Department of Defence records, Davis’s story checked out.

Back in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” Clinton-era when gay people were barred from military service, Sergeant Davis – a lesbian and the only female in her company – was sexually assaulted by three male soldiers. Plunged into a dangerous mission, she then has to rely on one of her attackers to get her squad home safely.

“She ends up ... having to carry him on her back,” Wells says, audibly drawing breath. “You develop a close-knit bond when you’re deployed. It is very familial. You have to make sure everyone comes home. And she did.”

Previewing at Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre on July 14, Heroine will then make its world premiere run at the Fringe as part of Made In Scotland, a showcase supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund. Directed by Susan Worsfold, who helmed last year’s National Theatre of Scotland Fringe hit Eve, Heroine is performed and written by Wells, who says the long development time was a necessity.

“We had to get to know each other very slowly so I could do that, so I could check, so I could legitimately say this was based on a true story,” says Wells. The actor-writer prioritised Davis’s wellbeing throughout the process and says the ex-soldier’s healing is “far more important than any play”.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t helping her to heal,” Wells says. “We couldn’t have any other outcome. When I started, I said: ‘I am worried. I am an actor. You have to have a good therapy team. It’ll be incredibly triggering and it will bring everything up’. She said: ‘I know’.”

Eliminating all potentially identifying details in Davis’s account, Wells found herself “forced into a world I knew nothing about”. She discovered Davis was far from alone. According to Pentagon estimates, female soldiers in the US Army are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed in combat. A recent US Department of Defence report says there is a sexual assault in the US military every 35 minutes. Meanwhile, the UK Ministry of Defence only began recording statistics in 2015.

Back then, Wells and her team were invited by the United Nations to attend a conference on sexual violence in conflict chaired by Angelina Jolie and William Hague. That same week news came through that the UK Government had to pay compensation to the family of Anne-Marie Ellement, a soldier who had taken her own life in 2011 after alleging two male colleagues had raped her.

Last year, the Royal Military Police apologised “unreservedly” to her family, admitted that “aspects of the original investigation were unsatisfactory” and said it was “vital we learn the lessons of these events”.

The case refocused the spotlight on attitudes to women in the military and a lack of faith by army personnel in their own complaints system.

“There’s no independent system of review, so if something happens to you, who you report it to is also your chain of command,” Wells says. “There is a crisis of leadership as there are not enough who say: ‘Not on my watch’ and really mean it." 

While the fall-out from the Ellement case may be starting to make positive ripples in the UK, the effects are beginning to be felt in the US of a recent law banning military commanders from reversing jury verdicts in sexual assault and rape cases. This was the so-called “good soldier defence” whereby assault allegations against a soldier with good combat service would not be investigated.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is now trying to pass a bill that would take sexual violence cases out of the military’s hands.

“Gillibrand has an enormous fight on her hands,” Wells says. “That lack of justice for so many people is why ‘survivor’s humour’ is very important. I found it hard to deal with at first, as an actor. But there is, in a weird way, a lot of joy in the play. In the middle of something that’s horrible, there’s got to be some spark of something, a torch in the darkness.”

Heroine marks Wells’s return to the stage after years of acting for film and TV. Flitting between live action and narration, the piece was described at a preview as: “fascinating and gloriously entertaining – even as it bites hard”. Reflecting on ideas of revenge and forgiveness, Heroine also explores what it takes to be courageous.

“I think she speaks to the bravery of speaking out,” Wells adds. “That is a huge burden, a burden that if you aren’t a survivor of sexual violence you don’t really understand, I think.

“It is very frightening and fracturing to speak out. You’re talking about something that threatens your survival and you’re dependent on the reactions of others.”

Wells hopes to tour Heroine to army bases and “everywhere where sexual assault has been normalised so it can be used and leveraged as a way to reject it”, as well as more of a sense of personal peace for Davis and others affected.

Watch the trailer for Heroine at bit.ly/HeroineTrailer2

July 14, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, 8pm, £10 and £12. Tel: 01475 723723. www.beaconartscentre.co.uk

Aug 3 to Aug 27, Rainy Hall, Assembly The Mound, Edinburgh, noon, £9 and £11. www.assemblyfestival.com

www.heroinetheplay.com www.madeinscotlandshowcase.com #heroinetheplay #MeToomilitary