Scottish playwright Frances Poet talks about Sophia, a new Sound Stage play based on the life of Sophia Jex Blake, the first practising female doctor in Scotland and the Edinburgh Seven.
Frances Poet is a Scottish playwright whose recent works include Fibres, Gut (winner of the Writers Guild Best Play Award), and the multi-award-winning Adam. Frances has also completed several classic adaptations including The Macbeths, What Put the Blood (Andromaque), Dance of Death and The Misanthrope as well as the radio plays ALT Delete, Gut and The Disappointed and scripts for film and television.
The Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh in association with Naked Productions production of Sophia will premiere on the new audio-digital platform Sound Stage from 27-29 August. Tickets are on sale here.
Your new audio play, Sophia, is coming to Sound Stage, what can you tell us about it?
The play is about Sophia Jex Blake, the first woman doctor in Scotland. She had to overcome many obstacles before she was able to place her doctors’ plaque on the door of her Edinburgh medical practice.
Sophia managed to persuade enough progressive professors at Edinburgh University to allow her and six other women to be the first to matriculate at a British university. But opposition was strong and when the University Council eventually reneged, refusing to let the women graduate, she took the battle to parliament.
She passed her M.D. in Bern and Dublin, set up not one but two medical schools for women and eventually became Edinburgh University’s first recognised woman extramural lecturer. She was an extraordinary woman and the play tells her story but also that of her lover, Margaret Todd, a novelist and qualified doctor, who wrote her biography.
What inspired you to write the play?
I’m always interested in Scottish stories and as a Yorkshire lass who has made Glasgow my home, I identified with Sussex-born Sophia’s love affair with Scotland. I was fascinated by the fact that Edinburgh University was progressive enough to lead the way in allowing women to matriculate and yet failed at the final hurdle, denying the women their degrees.
It was the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians of Ireland that gave the first medical degrees to Sophia and others. That Sophia chose Edinburgh to be her home despite this snub belies a stubbornness I was drawn to as well as a complicated love for a place that managed to be simultaneously progressive and regressive.
Why do you think the story of Sophia Jex Blake deserves to be told in this way?
I only encountered Sophia Jex Blake in the first place because historians and scientists are working hard to promote crucial women who have all too often been overlooked in the history books. A group of volunteers have been giving their time to right the gender imbalance evident in resources like Wikipedia (until recently only 17% of their entries were women) and Sophia Jex Blake has been one figure to benefit from this effort.
It is my privilege to be able to write about a pioneer like Sophia and draw greater attention to her, but an interesting life doesn’t necessarily make an interesting play so it would be disingenuous to claim I wanted to write Sophia’s story for any reason other than that she is a great protagonist. She was a gloriously difficult woman who attracted drama in her professional life as well as her personal life because she was so uncompromising.
She’s a gift to a writer; a selfless and inspirational woman who could be petty and self-destructive. When I researched further and read of the love affair between Sophia and Margaret Todd, who wrote herself out of her lover’s biography, I knew there was enough intrigue, drama and passion to tell Sophia’s story.
Tell us about the cast of Sophia, what are you looking forward to most about hearing your play brought to life?
The glorious thing about this process is I don’t need to wait until August to hear the play. The edit is in the can so I have already heard our magnificent cast, lead by a terrifically spirited Madeleine Worrall as Sophia. There’s even a cameo from my daughter, who was star stuck to act alongside Claire Perkins having seen her extraordinary performance in Emilia. Meanwhile I’m always star struck by Paul Higgins having seen multiple brilliant performances of his on stage and screen.
You’ve written radio plays before, do you have to think differently as a writer when creating audio theatre?
Radio is a wonderful medium and I loved the scope it afforded me in this audio drama. I am able to jump from a riot on the streets of Edinburgh to a massive meeting in St Giles’ to an intimate argument between lovers (and their dog!) in a small Perthshire cottage that may or may not be haunted.
There really are no limits and while I found I needed to devote more time to establish total clarity of situation than I might in a stage play, it was exhilarating to be able to create such detailed contrasting worlds.
What would you say to anyone thinking of listening to Sophia?
Please do! It’s a fast moving 90 minutes with great performances, that are by turn funny and moving, and you’ll come away knowing more about some amazing women.