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Photo @ Elise O’Meara

Interview: Dripping 17 Century French Poison

Writer/Director Becca Chadder talks La Voisin playing VAULT Festival.

The quickest look at the Wikipeida page for Catherine Montvoisin just screams out for her story to be told. And that is just what writer and director Becca Chadder is doing with La Voisin. She is bringing Montvoisin’s story to VAULT Festival later this month, so it seemed a good opportunity to find out more about this fascinating tale and all things historic French poisoners.

Hi Becca, lovely to meet you, shall we do introductions first.

Thanks for having me! I’m Becca and I’m a writer/ director and co-founder of Paprichoo. We’re a theatre company that tells stories from overlooked and underrepresented perspectives and our work is fast-paced and always female-led. Our last show The Poison Belt performed at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2022 and we’ve been developing La Voisin since our run at The Pleasance Theatre, as part of the London Horror Festival.

And what is La Voisin all about then?

La Voisin tells the story of the three most famous female poisoners in 17th century France and what happened when one of them got caught. Based on the incredible true story of the Catherine Montvoisin and the Affair of the Poisons, La Voisin asks what happens when the women we write stories about were bad?

La Voisin

How did you first come across the story of Catherine Montvoisin? We were going to ask what inspired you to write about her but her Wikipedia page alone is fascinating!

It’s wild isn’t it! I feel so lucky to have found this story – I was searching for something to write a play about and literally opened Sandi Toksvig’s Almanac at a random page and discovered who she was and her incredible story. I became completely obsessed with this woman living in such a patriarchal and rigid society who made her money telling fortunes, mixing potions, and poisoning people’s husbands. In fact, to have any actual historical accounts is lucky too – Most records were burnt to hide what happened, but one set of notes were filed away and lost for centuries, only to be discovered by accident. Most people in the UK haven’t heard about her, so I think it’s about time they did.

How do you incorporate humour and farce into a story about such a dark and serious topic?

I guess it depends how you look at it. It could be deeply serious that one woman murdered between 1,000 and 2,500 people over 20 years and (almost) got away with it. Or it could be completely ridiculous, which it is. I think we all need a good laugh right now, and being able to share a dark and disturbing story in a light-hearted way allows us to really talk about things which might otherwise be difficult. The challenges these women faced are the same ones we still face today — provision of healthcare, agency, socio-political power, safety — We don’t need to tell our female audience members what they already know, we want to let them laugh about it.

The play covers twenty years in just 60 minutes. What challenges and opportunities does this present?

It’s definitely a challenge to tell such an enormous story and to know which parts and which characters we have to leave behind for now. We’ve been working with a fantastic dramaturg called Fergus Head which has helped us really focus in on what version of the story we’re telling this time around. It’s really exciting because that means this version of the show will be a totally new experience for returning audience members, and one that will never be seen again after the VAULT Festival. Knowing this show will expand and change means it will only exist in our performance week, and audiences really have to catch it now before the magic is gone!

Finally, do you have any recommendations for other shows to check out at VAULT Festival?

There’s so many great shows on from friends and colleagues alike! We’re keen to catch Snail, Her Green Hell, Parma Violets, and My Name Is!

Our thanks to Becca for taking the time to chat with us, you can find all over social media as @paprichoo including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

La Voisin plays VAULT Festival from 28 February to 5 March. Further information and tickets can be found here.

About Dave B

Originally from Dublin but having moved around a lot, Dave moved to London, for a second time, in 2018. He works for a charity in the Health and Social Care sector. He has a particular interest in plays with an Irish or New Zealand theme/connection - one of these is easier to find in London than the other! Dave made his (somewhat unwilling) stage debut via audience participation on the day before Covid lockdowns began. He believes the two are unrelated but is keen to ensure no further audience participation... just to be on the safe side.