Frances Poet: 'All art is about death and the human condition'

The playwright who helped turn Adam Kashmiry’s life story into a five star hit is back with two new shows exploring pain and prejudice.

Playwright Frances Poet

WHEN Traverse artistic director Gareth Nicholls revealed his plans for reopening the theatre after 16 months of lockdown, no one was more surprised than playwright Frances Poet. “Gareth called to say, ‘We’re thinking about reopening the Traverse and we think your play is the play to do it’,” she says. “My jaw dropped.”

Still, showing throughout this month for socially distanced audiences, is built around five interlocking stories set in Edinburgh. It’s the result of Poet’s 2018 Creative Fellowship with the Traverse and IASH (Edinburgh University’s Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities), in which she focussed on research around pain.

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“When you reopen after a crisis, you can programme a happy play which gives a lovely bit of escapism, or you can programme one which recognises the pain we’ve been through, helps us process that, helps us find the hope again,” she says. Still, if you haven’t already worked it out, is one of the latter.

Poet is cautious talking about it, wary of spoilers. Instead we talk about pain. “It’s fascinating. I threw myself into the academic research. We think physical pain is more clear cut and legitimate than emotional pain. It’s not true, both are shaped by personality, life experience, culture, time. Hence this mantra that pain is what a person says it is. I’m not an academic, so I have been guided by some brilliant dramaturgs to let go of the TED-talk version.

“All art is about death and the human condition, I dared to look unflinchingly at that in this play. It is a play about that, but it is also full of hope and humour and music,” she adds quickly, emphasising the important role of Oguz Kaplangi’s live folk-rock inspired score.

Rehearsals have been “nerve-wracking”. “At any given moment, finding out one person has been in contact with anyone with covid could turn it into a house of cards. But it feels so thrilling to be back sharing something collectively. It’s been so long.”

While Poet’s profile as a playwright has been rising steadily in the last five years, and she also writes for radio and television, she is still known to many as the writer of Adam, a 2017 Fringe First winning hit for National Theatre of Scotland about a young trans man’s journey from Egypt to Scotland, in which Adam Kashmiry himself starred. Her first full-length play, Gut, which won the Bruntwood Prize, was scheduled to be staged at the Traverse the followed spring. “But I was allowed to have a five-star festival hit before my first play even went on,” she laughs, “which was a fairly odd and daunting way to do it.”

Poet worked as a script reader and dramaturg at London’s Bush and Hampstead Theatres and was literary manager at National Theatre of Scotland before she started writing for the stage herself. “I wasn’t a frustrated writer. I wasn’t sitting at my desk thinking ‘if only I could do that’, but I did have the most incredible apprenticeship because the best thing you can do is read and see lots of theatre.”

When I ask what made her take the step into becoming a playwright, she says one word: children. “I know many women’s careers stall when they have children, but for me it created the career break I needed. I don’t think it’s possible to be both an experienced dramaturg and an emerging writer [at the same time]; the career break allowed me to make that step.”

She plots the beginning of her playwriting career between the ages of her son (now 11) and daughter (nearly nine) when her first play, Faith Fall, was staged by the late David MacLennan at Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint. “David was wonderful. At his funeral, I was one of many voices saying I have my career because of him.”

Gathering acclaim for adaptations such as The Macbeths and Andromaque (What Put the Blood), she found herself being recommended to director Cora Bissett who was looking for a writer for Adam. “I went on an extraordinary journey with it. It was daunting writing a real story, and Adam and I grew to be great friends through the process. It was a magical thing, and it ended up being the best version of itself with Adam performing in it.”

While projects fell like nine pins at the beginning of lockdown - Poet’s play Maggie May, about living with dementia, was forced to close after three previews at Leeds Playhouse - she was commissioned to write Sophia for Sound Stage, the audio-digital venue created during lockdown by Pitlochry Festival Theatre and the Lyceum, about Sophia Jex-Blake, the first woman to practice medicine in Scotland.

“It was fascinating because Edinburgh University was, in some ways, so progressive, the first university in Britain to allow women to matriculate. Then, it fell at the final hurdle and the regressive element blocked the women from graduating, so they had to get their degrees in Dublin. I was interested by that contrast.

“Sophia was formidable, she battled and battled at no small personal cost to open the gates for all woman. When, in 1869, her application was rejected on the grounds that they couldn’t make an exception for one person, it was a gift to her, she set out to find a group of women and did - the Edinburgh seven. They were the brightest minds of their generation.”

The play changed direction, however, when she realised there was another story underneath the first: Margaret Todd, the author of a doorstop biography of Jex-Blake, had been Sophia’s lover for 20 years. “She wrote this detailed love letter but wrote herself out of it completely. So the story shifted, it became about two women, both contributing in their own separate ways, Sophia’s lover recording what she did in a world where so many women’s history is not recorded. That’s the play I’ve gone on to write.”

Still is at the Traverse until 22 August and will stream on demand from late August. www.traverse.co.uk. Sophia is on SoundStage, 27-29 August, www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com / www.lyceum.org.uk