Lives of the Great Poisoners is a multidisciplinary theatre piece with elements of text, dance and song on the theme of history’s most infamous poisoners. Caryl Churchill collaborated on its creation with composer Orlando Gough and choreographer Ian Spink. It was first performed at the Arnolfini, Bristol, on 13 February 1991 in a production by Second Stride, the performance collective co-founded by Ian Spink, Siobhan Davies and Richard Alston.
The play has three parts, each featuring an infamous poisoner: Dr Crippen, who was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife Cora; Medea, the mythical figure who killed her ex-husband Jason’s new wife with poisoned robes; and Madame de Brinvilliers, the notorious seventeenth-century poisoner who learnt the tricks of the trade from her lover. The three stories are linked together by the figure of Midgley, an American inventor and industrial chemist.
The piece requires nine performers: four dancers, three singers, one singer/actor and one actor. Many of the scenes in the play take place between performers of different disciplines: a singer and a dancer, for instance, or an actor and a singer. The music and the text were written first and formed the backbone for the choreography, which grew out of improvisational work in rehearsal. The dance interludes were then woven into the existing text.
The Second Stride production at the Arnolfini in 1991 was directed by James Macdonald and designed by Antony McDonald with choreography by Ian Spink.