It’s hard to be a parent these days. Just ask Frances Poet, whose new play, Gut, opens at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh this weekend in a production directed by Poet’s fellow writer Zinnie Harris. Gut is a sadly familiar sounding story about what happens when a couple take their three-year-old son to a supermarket café, and what may or may not have happened after an incident that shatters their faith in those closest to them.
“I wrote it when I was in the eye of the storm of raising two young kids,” says Poet. “My youngest was two and my eldest was four, and at that point I only had one day a week to write. Most of my week was playdates and chatting to other parents.”
Poet watched a Facebook link to a breakfast TV experiment, in which the children of parents who were confident their children would never go off with a stranger watched film of an undercover social worker approach them in a play-park. Nine out of ten of the children did the opposite.
“The woman presenting summed up by saying, we’re not trying to scare you, it’s just better that you’re well informed,” says Poet. “And I sat there thinking, so these parents have had the conversation with their children, the only way they could’ve gone further is to terrify them about human-kind.”
While other anecdotes fed into Poet’s thinking, Gut aims to question things beyond them.
“If you step aside from the parenting, which I was very much in the heart of at the time, I think Gut is a play about trust,” she says. “I think I err towards the more trusting side of things. My dad was very over-protective. I lived in the middle of the countryside, and I used to go for these walks, and my dad, who was very protective, would say there are two types of lunatics about. There are lunatics behind the wheel, and lunatics who follow you in the car.”
If Gut sounds the stuff of 1970s public information films designed to scare kids into staying safe, the revelations of everyday child abuse hiding in plain sight over the last few years have also influenced the play.
“The comparisons between how our parents raised us, and how we now raise our kids, is really marked,” says Poet. “I think there was a kind of benign neglect from my mother’s generation that actually meant that they didn’t make themselves martyrs to parenthood in the way that my generation have. We’re better informed, we know what that benign neglect caused, and we know about the abuse that was covered up, but we’re more strung out and stressed out helicopter parents.”
In this way, Gut attempts to filter the play’s narrative through troubling echoes of the past.
“It was a different time, with a different style of parenting,” says Poet, “and it was a time when we were all dreaming about writing to Jimmy Saville.”
Gut is Poet’s first full length work to see the light of day since she scripted Adam, the Cora Bissett directed dramatisation of transgender Egyptian asylum seeker Adam Kashmiry’s flight to liberation. Presented by the National Theatre of Scotland, who are also associate producers of Gut, Adam was something of a bridge for Poet, who was a dramaturg and literary manager with the NTS prior to developing her own writing career.
“I flipping loved being part of Adam,” she says, “and it was an amazing process, but Cora came to me, so I was serving Cora’s vision and Adam’s story, and I loved that. I see that project a bit as part of the adaptation work that I’ve done, which is different from this. It’s a scarier leap into the dark when you come up with something and say I think this is important, and I think audiences should come to this, to when a director says, I want to do this project, hey, come and collaborate with me. And also, Gut was written before Adam, so this really does feel like the first one.”
Raised between York and Scarborough, Poet was introduced to theatre as a child, and did some directing while studying at St Andrew’s University. Thinking she wanted to be a TV director, Poet spoke to a friend of her uncle’s, who was a script editor on Midsomer Murders, and who suggested she do some script reading for various theatres. From this she became literary assistant at the Bush Theatre in London, and then literary director associate at Hampstead Theatre.
“I didn’t know script reading and literary management was a job,” she says, “but
once I got there I bloody loved it.”
As a young woman with limited experience, there were times that Poet was made to feel like she shouldn’t be there.
“When I was script-reading before the job at the Bush turned up, all the other people on the script-reading panel were directors, actors and writers, and I was still in my early twenties. I remember one time going for a drink with everyone afterwards, which was excruciating, but I knew I had to do it. It was such an awkward thing. And I remember turning up and some guy saying, well, what are you, then, and me saying, well, I’m script-reading, and feeling that somehow that wasn’t allowed. So it was an odd thing until I found the root of it and became a literary assistant.”
While at the Bush, Poet took part in the Royal Court’s young writers course, and at Hampstead submitted a piece for a new writing festival run by Drywrite, the company that launched the success of writer and actress Phoebe Waller Bridge. Once she joined the National Theatre of Scotland as literary manager, however, she concentrated on dramaturgy.
“The NTS job was much broader and more thrilling than the kind of jobs I’d had before,” says Poet, “because the remit was so much broader. It wasn’t just like the new writing theatres, where the script lands and I’m a gate-keeper as a literary manager. At NTS, it was a different emphasis anyway, because you weren’t getting sent loads of scripts, but there were loads more entry points. So this person is a maker, and this person’s a novelist or a musician, and we’re going to be working in a different way.”
After leaving the NTS, Poet was approached by the late David MacLennan, who drafted her into the A Play, A Pie and A Pint fold. Poet worked as dramaturg on The Jean Jacques Rousseau show, and her short play, Faith Fall was produced at Oran Mor. This was followed by stripped down adaptations of Moliere’s The Misanthrope and Racine’s Andromaque, and eventually to Gut, which she entered anonymously for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. When it was short-listed, Poet finally felt validated as a writer. With commissions for Out of Joint, Theatre Galore and Perth Theatre ongoing, Poet says she’s “riding the crest of a wave at the minute, and I’m really busy, which is very thrilling, and I know tumbleweed is round the corner, but until it is I just have to keep going for it.”
While Gut aims to challenge ideas about parenting, Poet isn’t interested in offering glib solutions.
“My mum used to say about my dad that she wasn’t allowed to be the worrier, because he filled that gap for her. So, as worried as she might be, she wasn’t allowed to be that, and I think if I’m anything I’m probably more that parent. You’re not allowed to be neurotic, because the kids have to live, but there is a dilemma at the heart of it which I can’t answer, and that’s about how do we retain the freedom of our parents in the 70s whilst making sure that our kids don’t fall through the net? Maybe it’s better that all the kids are helicopter parented in order that one kid is not abused, I don’t know. It’s that clash between normal life and horror, and that your brain has to accommodate the horror to protect the child, that’s the weirdest part about parenting.”
Gut, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 20-May 12; Tron Theatre, Glasgow, May 16-19
The Herald, April 19th 2018