Victoria Abbott knew she was being followed so she did her utmost to lose her pursuer. She stuck to Barcelona's main thoroughfares, tried to blend into crowds and lingered in shops and at tourist attractions.

Forty minutes later and he was still close by when Abbott took a wrong turn, found herself in a dead-end alleyway, where shops were closing, and she felt very much alone.

"I thought to myself, 'not today, not today' so I turned around to face him and yelled at him in profane Spanish telling him I had no money and he should just leave me alone. I guess I must have some sort of 'look' in my eyes because I'm only 5ft 2" but he turned and ran away."

Having foiled a potential mugger, Abbott felt triumphant. That's how she imagines an ancestor of hers must have felt standing on the parapet of Dunbar Castle in 1338 when William Montagu, 1st Earl of Salisbury, lifted a five-month siege of the Scottish castle.


That ancestor was Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, nicknamed Black Agnes for her dark hair and eyes. The wife of Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March, Agnes' successful defence of their home earned her a place in folk history for centuries.

Now Abbott brings Black Agnes' story to life in Run Rabbit, a solo show she describes as a love letter to her famous ancestor as well as to late-night walks home, the world around her and some of the people in it.

"It's self-deprecating, exploring my own privilege because, well, I sit very much in the middle of a huge amount of luck," she says. "I suppose it all comes down to the fact I want to change the world — and be comfortable while I'm doing it — but you have to be brave and that means being a bit like Black Agnes."

Agnes, if research is correct, did not lack for intestinal fortitude. When English forces told her they had captured and would hang her brother if she did not surrender, the countess called their bluff. "She told them to go ahead because it would bring her closer to the throne," says Abbott.

He wasn't killed, but one historian noted Agnes wasn't in line for the earldom, so either she was taking a "serious gamble" with her brother's life or the story has been exaggerated. Nevertheless, at every turn, Black Agnes was one step ahead of the English who finally admitted defeat.

Abbott explores what characteristics she may have inherited from Black Agnes. She admits while she regards herself as a kind person, she has a quick temper.

"I've been a solo backpacker and I like walking at night so I've had to learn to watch where I am and what's going on around me and learn to be quick with the insults."

Abbott, British-born to Kiwi parents of Scottish descent, didn't know of Black Agnes — or her connection to her — until last year when she was rehearsing for the play Kororāreka — The Ballad of Maggie Flynn.


That story, written by Paolo Rotondo for Red Leap Theatre, celebrates feisty women from New Zealand's own past. The Kororāreka cast researched their own female ancestors; Abbott admits to sadness that her co-stars, many of them tangata whenua, knew their origin stories well.

"So I asked Mum, whose maiden name was Dunbar, about our family and she just casually told me about Black Agnes," says Abbott. "My uncle was doing the family history and had discovered the connection. Naturally, I went straight to google Black Agnes and found I did have a really important wahine in my heritage."

It turned out that Abbott had, in her late teens, visited Dunbar Castle while, more remarkably, her Kororāreka castmate Alison Bruce is descended from Robert the Bruce; both the Bruce and Dunbar clans fought side by side against the English. "Her ancestors may well have known mine."

Once Abbott finishes Run Rabbit, she'll re-join Kororāreka for a tour to seven North Island centres from August 24. The production is part of the 10-year anniversary commemorations for Red Leap Theatre, which prides itself on celebrating women's stories and talent.

Red Leap co-founder Julie Nolan directs Amber Curreen, Katrina George, Te Puawaitanga Winterburn, Bruce and Abbott in the latest incarnation of Kororāreka. The company is also developing two new productions, including a stage version of Janet Frame's Owls Do Cry.

What: Run Rabbit
Where and when: Basement Theatre Studio, July 24-August 4
What: Kororāreka — The Ballad of Maggie Flynn
Where and when: North Island tour begins August 24