Atropa Nights

Well its nearly upon 
us….Atropa Nights is at the Tron theatre Victorian Bar this Thursday and Friday the 17th and 18th of October 2013…at half eight….tickets are a mere £7 through the box office, for that you get 4 stories told by me and four beautiful pieces of piano music played live by the incredibly talented Louise Cairns. It also comes complete with an amazing bit of corsetry and costume by the fabulous Betty Spoke.
There thats the plug bit done….Oh no I forgot….not quite….next month we’re taking it to the Netherbow theatre at the Storytelling centre in Edinburgh on the 22nd of November where we’re on as a double bill with Fiona Herbert and Calum Lyken’s ‘The Silkie Wife’ .
But meanwhile before we go do the thing I thought I’d let you in on some of the background to the over all piece and importantly to the first story: Belladonna.
Spring 2013…I’d had one of those runs of time where theres not a lot of work coming in…I kept putting in proposals to work with other peoples outline plans….the feedback was positive but felt consolatory as I wasn’t getting the work…My ideas were lovely people kept saying but they’d gone with someone based locally, or I didn’t have quite enough experience in the right area, or they hadn’t got the funding they expected…Little did I realise when I embarked on Atropa nights that this would be my busiest year so far and I would spend many nights wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew, however there I was, it was a cold snowy miserable March, dark, with a sense of foreboding….and I got fed up with trying to dance to other peoples tunes.
I was longing to create sophisticated complex interesting storytelling for a grown up audience, I didn’t want to work as children’s entertainer in a draughty tent surrounded by straw bails all the time…don’t get me wrong that part of my work is a joy, an adventure, usually a brilliant afternoon watching children’s faces light up….but there is another side to storytelling….its not all traditional tales of Scottish lore round a bar room table or ‘lets join in’ sessions for the under 5’s….less and less schools are getting us in as a conduit to education (mine and many other storytellers favourite gigs) as funding becomes scarce ….but there was something else I couldn’t quite describe that I really wanted to do!

Now the thing with  Botanica fabula, the plant stories, is that a lot of them aren’t what we think of as appropriate for children these days, many are great for older children and work well with a diverse range of adult groups but some are just downright dangerous….they deal with death, addiction, hallucinations, sexual inadequacies, outrageous libido’s, domestic violence, poisons and  cures gone horribly wrong. They create a journey through the history of herbal medicine and its complex relationship with the powers that be, they paint an interesting picture of the role of women in society from the vilification of witches (often rightly or wrongly associated with herbalists and folk healers f1) in the C16th and C17th, to the importance attached to fantastical and horrific painkilling steps in obstetrics by apposite women’s groups in the early C20th 2. There are incomplete stories captured by pieces of poetic folklore describing death by particular poisons or stories hidden in names, there are plants which play an intrinsic part in classic works of literature….these are gems but don’t work in isolation in a conventional storytelling situation they almost needed to be grafted together to create another story….an opportunity to step through the mirror so to speak and find out what else had been going on.
So Atropa Nights: schedule three stories from the back of the poisoners almanac: tales of dangerous plants, wilful women and the men who loved them, was born.
I started to look at snippets of folklore and literature, historic traditional uses and superstitions…there are the obvious plants, plants associated with modern addictions…they’re interesting enough but the ones that really interested me where the ones that are slowly becoming rarer….the ones that played a regular part in our lives ‘til relatively recently when health and safety, scientific knowledge, modern medicine and modern farming techniques became widespread and took precedence.
The first story I knew I would include is one of my own “The Wolf Peach’ soon to be included in Emma Tivey’s forthcoming pubication , I’ve blogged about it before, my tale of premenstrual lycanthropy . A story which evolved from the myths and superstitions surrounding the tomato, one of the more benevolent members of the Atropa genus.
Strangely enough the title came next: Atropa Nights, it kept popping into my head, I tried to change it but it really wasn’t going anywhere so I worked around it….there were other plants families I wanted to research, other poisonous dangerous things that could heal with the most skilled of hands or destroy on a whim, but they’d have to wait…give the Solanaceae family a year, then maybe develop into a full book a chapter of stories for each genus is my long term plan!
The next member of the Atropa family to make an appearance was Belladonna: Deadly Nightshade, many people are aware that its dark purple berries are dangerous, though rarely found in Britain’s hedgerows these days, still more people recognise it’s name as meaning beautiful woman and are aware it was used for hundreds of years for its powers to beautify the eyes, indeed its ability to dilate the pupils is still a part of the opthalmic repertoire to this day.
One of its primary constituents: scopolamine was also a key ingredient along with morphine from the opium poppy, in Twilight sleep a dubious substance which gained popularity in obstetrics at the beginning of the C20th. Belladonna is renowned for  causing hallucinations prior to death…and infact the ingredients for twilight sleep are remarkably similar to  ‘flying ointment’ used by witches…opium and atropine..can  have an antagonistic effect on one another…potentially reducing the danger of the plants taken alone (a game no doubt that all too frequently had lethal consequences…given the incredibly precise measurements needed and limited efficacy!).
Witches lead me to the use of Belladonna as a poison in literature and history: this was a somewhat personal journey one that kind of began when I wanted to go to drama college decades ago. Lady Macbeth had been my audition piece, one member of the panel I’d auditioned in front of said I was very good, moving and authentic (those were his words) but that I lacked maturity that I should maybe see a bit more of the world first, I got a recall….but never went….I hadn’t really heard or understood his words I’d only registered ‘not good enough’….nerves overtook me….I didn’t have the confidence in myself. A lack of confidence that would lead to years of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, to unfulfilling catering jobs, truly awful abusive relationships, and addictions that sought to block out the fear and anxiety. Now the use of Belladonna by MacBeths army in poisoning the Danes would serve as a poetic devise in a piece which addressed all those nasty moments in my old life and celebrated my new amazingly happy and fortunate storytelling self. Belladonna the plant has historically been used on occasion to defeat addiction and prevent domestic violence, now Belladonna the story would be the epitaph on that part of my own life.
What else should I say….as one friend remarked at the preview back in the summer….this is a bit like doing an A level in literature (fortunately she sees studying as a pleasure…and to be honest you don’t need to know any of this….the piece is sinister and slightly seductive in a stand alone way…you don’t need to know the backstory!).
Oh yes…well the heroine is called Drusilla, meaning ‘dewy eyed’ she’s named after Livia Drusilla the wife of the emperor Augustus, notorious for poisoning those who stood in the ways of her ambition for her son’s; her poison of choice? Why Atropa Belladonna. There was also a  knowing self mocking nod in recognition of Joss Whedons anti heroine Drucilla in the Buffy series (what can I say my brother was a massive fan throughout his teens!), as a heroine addicted Victorian vampire I couldn’t resist the connection…after all the feel of Belladonna is very much late Victorian gothic and I was enjoying playing with the parallels between vampirism and addiction when I wrote the story.
The central male character is Arnold Todd and to say anymore would be too much…..and the outline, the spine of the thing? Which bit of classic storytelling was I holding at the back of my mind whilst I was constructing….well there’s just no getting away from Mr Fox….WHAT….you’ve never met Mr Fox, well lucky you….read it ….come down to Atropa Nights and listen then….make sure you never ever do….and if you do…..RUN….because he’s not a very nice man…and very few women leave his charms unscathed….
So that’s Belladonna….and the Wolf peach,  covered, what happened next was I met up with my lovely friend talented musician Louise Cairns whose just released this gorgeous EP and she generously agreed to work for nothing on an equal we split what we get basis should we not get funding, she then wrote two amazing new tunes for the first stories….then I discovered and adapted Machiavellis hilarious Mandragoria a tale twisting together the myths and legends surrounding the Mandrake root….the final story…well I call it a break….its a wee little moral piece on watching what you eat…with that in mind a late night cup of tilia tea for me…no biscuits I’ve got a fabulous Betty Spoke corset and skirt designed for the performance to get into tomorrow night! Would be lovely if you could all join us and if you can’t wish us well! Mxx

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