Louisa Collins: A Poison Crown | Actors Anonymous & Blancmange Productions

Image by Phyllis Wong

DEADHOUSE: Tales of Sydney Morgue returns for its second season presenting site-specific and interactive theatre experiences to reveal the hidden history of Sydney. Inspired by Caroline Overington’s book Last Woman Hanged, Louisa Collins: A Poison Crown explores the mystery surrounding two deaths, four trials, and a woman hanged.

The guide for this story (Kyla Ward) welcomes visitors into the claustrophobic crypt of St James’s Church in the heart of Sydney’s CBD to unravel the story of Louisa Collins (Jacqui Robson) who was charged and executed for murder after she lost two husbands under unusual circumstances. In this production, Louisa’s prosecution represents the powerful and deadly force of social expectation in 1888 where a woman’s grief was scrutinised nearly more than the evidence in court.

Starting with a happenstance discovery, two doctors (Shaun Foley and Liviu Monsted) sharing case notes, the play quickly moves through Louisa’s arrest, her gruelling four trials, and the conviction that sent the public into a spin. There were those who condemned her as a heartless monster but many rallied against her conviction, petitioning for a release or at the very least for her not to be hanged. The politics of the time comes jumping out in a re-enactment of heated parliamentary debate about the capabilities of women or the fairness of their exclusion from government. For many, this trial was the crux of the debate for the rights of women to have a say in the society that governed and punished them.

Ward’s guidance and narration between scenes and moments of note in the story was wonderfully done, drawing the audience into the personal story of a conviction that made national news. Robson conveys the painful position of Louisa well and the futility of relying on so many others for your fate. Her performance seems to offer an individual account of what it means to be made an example of.

Gina Schien’s script highlights all the key players of the day from the police, community, courts, and government as well as local gossips and religious institutions, and paints a comprehensive picture of the context for such a life. Direction from Monsted makes good use of the site, moving the audience through each location with gravity as every scene moved closer towards Louisa’s execution. The low ceilings and pokey corners of the crypt add great atmosphere to the gruesome story and aid in Ward’s development of intimacy between audience and actors.

For the local history-buffs out there or those looking for a true-crime story for the spooky season, this part-play, part-re-enactment is an inventive way to tell Sydney’s stories.

Louisa Collins: A Poison Crown is running in the Crypt of St James’ Church from October 23rd – November 9th

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