International Festival interview: playwright Zinnie Harris

Zinnie Harris
Zinnie Harris
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Edinburgh-based playwright Zinnie Harris won’t have a second to spare as she brings three of her works to the stage in a hectic month of ‘thought experiments’

There’s no shortage of contenders for the title of busiest person in Edinburgh this month, but Zinnie Harris must be in with a shout. The Edinburgh-based playwright has three works in rehearsal for the Edinburgh International Festival, one of which is an epic trilogy.

It is rare for the International Festival to showcase such a varied body of work by a single writer. This year it will stage Oresteia: This Restless House, her trilogy based on Aeschylus’ Oresteia, first performed at the Citizens in Glasgow last year; a new version of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros for the Lyceum; and Meet Me At Dawn, an entirely new play at the Traverse.

She makes it sound almost accidental. Festival director Fergus Linehan programmed Oresteia: This Restless House soon after seeing it at the Citizens. “When David [Greig] and I told him about Rhinoceros, he was keen, but I said I’ve already got a show in the Festival, maybe I shouldn’t be involved? Fergus to his credit said, ‘No, let’s make a virtue of the fact that we’re working with you in many ways and look for a third’. And it happened that I had just delivered Meet Me At Dawn to the Traverse.”

Harris has been a name to conjure with ever since her second play, Further Than the Furthest Thing, won a Fringe First in 2000. Works such as The Wheel and trilogy Midwinter, Solstice and Fall marked her out as a writer of ambition and scope, fearless about tackling big themes.

She has been commissioned by the RSC, the Royal Court and for television shows such as Spooks, teaching play-writing at the University of St Andrews, and is also a director. “She writes really well about the age of anxiety,” Linehan has said. “There’s something in her plays about the fragility of civilisations which seems right for this moment in time.”

Harris grew up loving theatre. “I just remember, as a child, walking into a theatre and that sense of the possibilities of the empty stage,” she says. She studied zoology at Oxford, but afterwards faced “a decision” and went to study theatre directing in Hull. “I was reading a lot of scripts, and I kept saying, ‘I wonder why they didn’t put that there’ and so. Eventually, I just thought, why don’t I write a play, almost as a vehicle to direct something, and the playwriting took off quite quickly. It took a while before I was back to being a writer and a director. I feel really content now that I’m properly doing both.”

She says theatre should speak to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and that Rhinoceros, the 1958 masterpiece by Romanian-born Ionesco, which sees familiar characters turn into rhinos, is a play for our times. “We’re living in a world where nothing is predictable any more, where change is happening so fast that the world is careering out of control, like the rhinoceroses charging down the road. People often say that Rhinoceros is about the rise of the Right, and of course it is, but really it’s about how a population changes its thinking, how you can look around and not recognise your neighbour any more, and that feels exactly like what’s going in a lot of the West.”

A co-production between the Lyceum and DOT Theatre of Istanbul, it will be directed by DOT’s Murat Daltaban. “When I first saw his work, I felt like I was watching something that could be at the Traverse,” says Harris. “He’s a very clever director. It felt like what it needed from me was a light touch, just to make it absolutely chime with now, so that it can be talking about Trump and Brexit and Farage and all those moments when you think, ‘What happened to who we were? We used not to think like this’.”

Funny and darkly political, it is hard to imagine a play more different from the Oresteia, Aeschylus’s violent cycle of grief and revenge in the house of Argos. Harris worked on it for three years, creating what Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan described as a “trail-blazing 21st-century adaptation”. Harris says: “Of all the projects I’ve ever worked on, the years working on This Restless House were by far the most exhilarating, because the challenge and demands were such that you just had to meet it.”

She began by engaging with the female characters, particularly Clytemnestra, who has gone down in history as an evil murderess. “The first thing I do is put myself into the boots of that character and think how I would feel if I was her,” she says. “If I had a husband who had killed my daughter and gone away for ten years and I was supposed to greet him warmly on his victorious return, I’m not sure that would sit right with me, particularly if I’d been left to run the country, and I was grief-stricken and not really able to express that. I don’t think I was particularly fighting against the male view so much as going into it as a woman and asking, ‘What does it look like from my perspective as a mother, as a wife?”

Harris carved out new roles for the women in the Oresteia, just as she has with her versions of Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (performed at the Donmar Warehouse with Gillian Anderson as Nora). Meantime, in her own work, she puts women at the centre of the action. “Classically a woman in the centre of a play is emblematic of all women, and a man in the centre is emblematic of all mankind,” she says. “I’m interested in putting a woman in the centre who is emblematic of all mankind.”

Harris does this well, with Mill in Further Than The Furthest Thing; Beatriz in The Wheel; Kate in Fall, the damaged woman selected by the state to be judge and jury on its war crimes; Dana in How To Hold Your Breath, hapless and frequently floundering. They never feel like warriors on a feminist agenda, “strong women” out to prove a point. They’re real, imperfect, multi-faceted people.

In Meet Me At Dawn, the characters at the centre of the two-hander are both women. “But it’s not a play about being gay, it’s a play about love and grief,” she says. “I wanted it to have a relationship with the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. That myth was created to address the impossibility of death, that when someone dies you simply cannot accept that you will not see them again. What if you could see your loved one one more time? The non-naturalistic form of theatre means you can imagine a bit of magic dust and give that possibility.”

Although it is a love story (the Traverse’s Orla O’Loughlin, who directs it, says it is “a real evolution” in Harris’ work, where “a huge beating heart powers the action”), it is also a response to the moment in which we find ourselves.

“I wrote it last year, soon after the Brexit vote,” Harris says. “It’s not just about the death of a loved one, it’s the death of a notion, like being part of Europe. There was a massive amount of denial, it took us all a grief process to come to terms with it. I think we still are.”

Theatre, she says, is the place to explore these emotions, a place for “thought experiments”. “That’s what theatre should be doing, it should be the place where we are thinking about what is the right response; what is the instinctive response, and can we be slightly better? That’s what ‘play’ means. It’s about a rehearsal for life.”

*Rhinoceros, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 3-12 August; Meet Me At Dawn, Traverse, 4-27 August; Oresteia: This Restless House, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 22-27 August. www.eif.co.uk