Behind the scenes at a novelist's first performance

Author Kate Atkinson found herself writing a book which really wanted to be a play. Lesley McDowell spoke to her
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The Independent Culture

The first full-length play by Whitbread Award-winning novelist Kate Atkinson is, she admits, "an old-fashioned kind of play in many ways". Gone is much of the tricksiness of language displayed in her first book Behind the Scenes at the Museum; gone is the hedonistic sense of narrative unfurling to any wind that cared to catch it.

The first full-length play by Whitbread Award-winning novelist Kate Atkinson is, she admits, "an old-fashioned kind of play in many ways". Gone is much of the tricksiness of language displayed in her first book Behind the Scenes at the Museum; gone is the hedonistic sense of narrative unfurling to any wind that cared to catch it.

And yet Abandonment is a work which takes on that most modern of dilemmas - the public/private divide so central to our understanding of ourselves. It's a sombre tale (but with much of Atkinson's humour running through it) of parallel lives set in an Edinburgh tenement, one contemporary and one in the high Victorianism of 1865.

Elizabeth is our modern-day heroine, coming to terms with her private history of abandonment as a baby by her mother in a public lavatory (cue some Wildean "handbag" references); Agnes is a Victorian governess abandoned by her Darwin-reading employer who is threatened with public scandal once she becomes pregnant by him.

It is a play occupied with themes of desertion on the surface, and personal morality and responsibility underneath. Darwinian ethics, the loss of God and chaos theory combine to produce a heady mixture: the internal rhyme and portmanteau games of Atkinson's novels are perhaps missed less than might be expected.

The parallel structure of the play initially encouraged director John Tiffany and Atkinson - who had worked together on two short works by the writer, Nice in 1996 and Karmic Mothers for BBC Scotland in 1997 - to set the two narratives on top of one another as a double stage set.

"The play was a book idea originally," Atkinson explains over coffee at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, where her play is running throughout the Festival. "But it struck me that the two narratives running together were much more of a visual thing. I could always see this story quite clearly in a way that I don't always see novels. It also worked better as a play because of the claustrophobia of using the same space. Because it's a play about constraints and restraints, to have the space specifically contained was better than in a novel. Novels in a way have no boundaries."

She and Tiffany eventually abandoned the idea of the two stories operating on stage at the same time, instead developing the intrusion of Agnes, the ghostly governess, into the contemporary story. Actors from the Victorian past played their modern-day counterparts and the doubling of their characters became more prominent.

The closeness of history and the impact of our antecedents that the play explores continue some of the themes of her novels. Following up the astounding success of her first work, Behind the Scenes... in 1995, with Human Croquet two years later, Atkinson recently completed the trilogy with Emotionally Weird, set in Dundee where the Yorkshire-born writer studied for an English degree back in the Seventies. Like the play, those novels focus particularly on mothers, whether present or absent, and what we are bequeathed through a private as well as a public history.

"I'm fascinated by that high Victorian period," Atkinson says. "I feel if I'd been a Victorian in 1865 I'd have thought this was how life would be forever and ever. I just imagine what it would be like to live in that kind of bourgeois household where everything worked and everyone worked for you."

Caught up in this "bourgeois household" is the lonely but intellectually and politically inquisitive figure of Agnes, the archetypal Victorian governess. "The governess occupies a bizarre position in the Victorian household: an educated woman responsible for educating the children of her social superiors. And at the same time, a single woman in a household without the social life of the other servants. It was a very cut-off kind of life."

In Atkinson's modern-day story, it is still women who feel cut off and abandoned. Contemporary heroine Elizabeth discovers her birth mother and is disappointed; her adoptive mother Ina is a widow, left behind by an abusive husband; sister Kitty is unable to commit, amoral and self-centered. Yet Atkinson denies that this is a women-only problem.

"This is about a Protestant society coming to terms with what Protestantism means, and what we have reaped from that - which is individual responsibility and how we deal with it - either badly or well."

In spite of her assurance that she would love to work on another theatre project, at the moment she is putting together a volume of short stories. "Playwriting's a very different thing from writing novels," she says. "But now I have a clearer idea of what would work on stage. It's been a big learning curve for me."

'Abandonment': Traverse, Edinburgh (0131 228 1404), from Thursday to 26 Aug

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