Friday, 3 April 2015

A Shropshire Lad with added scents

As I have mentioned in my post about the Gorilla perfume exhibition, I have a "thing" about interdisciplinary co-operations. The creative impact of two or more different concepts/ideas/fields of expertise coming together can be incredibly inspiring. In a way it's what I do with this blog, but that is still a very solitary affair. (apart from your comments, of course) So when my friend and neighbour Jeni Toksvig asked me to take part in a theatrical production I was both massively thrilled and silently scared. Jeni is a musical writer, director, lecturer, fasciliator of wonderful things. A world that I know next to nothing about. In true creative passion Jeni often sees connection where others don't, and she wanted me to bring "smell" to her latest theatrical adventure: AE.Housman's poem collection "A Shropshire Lad" put in a song and dance structure by Niall Ashdown. The poems, first published in 1896 "struck a chord with readers most pointedly as the events of World War One became known. It is said that many a soldier in the trenches carried a copy of Housman's poetry with them as they waited.*

The concept of the dramatisation is to allow and encourage audience participation and community involvement, both in setting up the stage and during the play. Factual information about the war combined with personal stories about emotional experiences of loss, farewell and home are going to be shared throughout the event. As I am usually terrified when I get asked to participate on any stage I wasn't sure how much this open structure aspect of the show would work for me, but I could see that a community involvement could add another dimension once the show will go on tour. My job was supposed to be that of a responder, someone who comes and observes the workshop and adds something from their own field of creativity. Jeni gave me total freedom how to respond, it only had to relate to smell in some way. 
The journey of the Shropshire Lad begins in an ideal English countryside in spring, with country fair and love and dance and carries on to the bitter farewells, all the way to the terror of the trenches and the loss of the lives of young men. My idea was to capture the smell of those events and the emotions involved in little bottles. I am of course not a professional perfumer, and I have no intention of becoming one, so after reading the script for the Shropshire Lad I got working on the idea of translating key elements of the story and my general associations with WWI into smell with all the things I had at hand.

Some were easier than others. The seasons, for example, could be found in many perfume creations. I chose Lolita Lempicka for 'Spring', Une Rose by Frederic Malle for 'Summer', Patchouli 24 for 'Autumn' and Serge Lutens L'Orpheline for 'Winter'. I found a 'Hero' in Parfumerie Generale's L'Eau Guerriere and 'Bodily Fluids' in +MA by the aptly named Blood Concept. 'Melancholy' was the lovely Angelique by Papillon Perfumes, and 'Healing' was provided by Thyme Sacre by Parfumes de Saintete. But apart from proper perfumes I looked for other, less complex sources of scent that would work for the narrative.   'Wounded' was TCP, 'Courage' a good glug of Whisky. I wanted to have a 'Hell' and had bought some sulphur powder for that, but should have known that it doesn't actually smell all that much. Anyway, it was fun. A few essential oils also came into play and Mael's Whisky aroma testing box proved very resourceful with notes like 'Decay', 'Cut Grass', 'Earthy' and 'Smoky'. For the rehearsal I had decided on presenting the scents in small medicine bottles and only offer to spray on blotters and people's skin if they wanted. The smell of 'Decay' for example isn't something you want to linger. 
I was slightly nervous as to how my little display would be perceived, but I needn't have worried. Everyone tucked in and opened bottles happily, sniffing, recoiling, smiling, all chatting to each other and being very engaged. Smell does that to people. Comparable to music in that it opens some channels in a very spontaneous and unfiltered way. 

I then had the opportunity to listen to the songs and see the acting for the first time and it really moved me. Even in that rather uninspiring hall the power of the music and the play was incredible. Niall has found melodies that are simple and evocative in the best possible way. (He is also responsible for some strong ear worms I keep getting). And actors are a funny crowd. You can see who is an actor right away; there is a presence and awareness that is electrifying, and being so close to see them working their magic was pretty awesome. 

Whenever new people came into the room, audience/family and friends, we encouraged them to try some smells and again the ice breaking qualities of scent were interesting to watch. It would be amazing to have an element of smell for the actual tour of the production. I'm sure it will help the audiences to engage with the story in a playful way. I am absolutely thrilled by the experience and can't wait to do it again. 

And while searching for the image of the book cover, I found that A Shropshire Lad is also the name of a beautiful rose. What a lovely and fragrant coincidence. 

*quote from Niall Ashdown's website


  1. Fantastic! Great, very apt, choices and I'm happy they were so well received.

    It's so true that perfume/smell is great for getting an instant reaction and opening people up. A perfect ice-breaker indeed.

    Fab project all round.

    1. Thanks Tara. It was a great experience and I hope that smell will get more of an 'outing' in art and theatre projects. In fact, I think perfume houses should actively look out for and encourage those opportunities. For this one, Penhaligons would be a good choice and don't I just now the person to ask...?

  2. Just catching up with blog reading and oh wow! What a fantastic project to portray A Shropshire Lad through song and dance, and your scenting of key elements of the action just adds another dimension. Loved some of your choices, like TCP for wounds, and whisky for courage. And it's great that everyone entered into the spirit of things. I hope you carry on working with - and scenting - this troupe! And I didn't know A Shropshire Lad was a rose, despite living on the border...

    1. Hallo Vanessa. I should have known that you are familiar with the poems. It is indeed a great project and I am glad that I could participate.