WHEN artistic director Dominic Hill decided it was time Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre entered the Christmas market, he was faced with the dilemma of what kind of show to put on. His rival theatres have carved out their own niches – panto at the King's, musicals at the Playhouse, the more traditional storytelling of Peter Pan at the Lyceum – and there was no point in playing them at their own game.
He turned to Douglas Irvine, artistic director of the children's company Visible Fictions, who suggested that what they needed was the equivalent of a Saturday afternoon family film.
"I thought it would be something people might not expect you to try or that might not even be possible to put on stage," says Irvine. "We rumbled around Indiana Jones and The Great Escape and then we landed on Zorro."
The swashbuckling masked outlaw – created by Johnston McCulley in 1919 in The Curse Of Capistrano and reinvented in countless comics, films and TV shows – seemed to be just what they were looking for. So Irvine called on playwright Davey Anderson to re-imagine the adventures of Don Diego de la Vega (Zorro's real identity) for the stage – sword fights and all – in a piece of family entertainment for six-year-olds and up.
By chance, they found the Robin Hood-style escapades were a perfect match for the seasonal spirit. "Zorro is like this mysterious benefactor, which seems to tie in to Christmas time," says Irvine. "It's got all the stock elements – the romance, the adventure, the goodie, the baddie – that make it feel like a Christmas show, but it's undoubtedly a play."
Anderson, whose play Liar won the gong for best children's show in this year's Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland, realised that Zorro offered him tremendous flexibility in terms of a story. Unlike many action hero tales, there is no definitive version and not even a consistent set of characters. This freed him to come up with his own fast-moving interpretation, one that made space to explore the man behind the mask as well as the feats of derring-do.
"Zorro is one of these characters you're aware of but you don't know the details, unlike Superman or Batman," says Anderson, who in his parallel career as a musician is working on the score for the National Theatre of Scotland's forthcoming Peter Pan. "I had a huge marathon of watching all the Zorro films that were ever made and reading lots of the books. He has been constantly rewritten as time has gone on, so this gave me a chance to write a classic family adventure story without being tied to doing an adaptation. Essentially I came up with a new story, but it should feel like an old one."
The story of this Zorro, then, is of a man learning how to become a hero and facing the moral choice of whether to become a vigilante or to fight for the greater good. "Diego de la Vega, who is the daytime identity of Zorro, should be just as interesting a character as Zorro," says Anderson. "A big part of the love interest comes in the triangle between Diego, the girl that he loves, Isabella, and this masked man she is enamoured of, not realising he is the same guy."
It's this emotional story that puts the play into more complex territory than a straightforward thrills-and-spills adventure, although there will be plenty of that as well. With Sandy Grierson playing Zorro – sharing the stage with Richard Conlon as a military captain and Claire Dargo as Isabella – the production aims to match the excitement of an action movie with a fast-paced theatrical style of its own.
When composer David Trouton saw the rehearsals he described it as "a living cartoon". "You see this guy wrestling with who he is and what he's about, which goes beyond that boys' story, but there is an action feel about it," says Irvine.
Anderson was delighted by the opportunities the story opened up. "It's so unusual as a writer to be given the brief to write action sequences," he says. "It was very brave of Dougie to ask me to write something that was impossible to stage. How do you write a horse chase or how do you write a sword fight at the same time as there's something dramatic going on?
"It's about finding a visual logic that suggests some of it and gives some of the pictures, but still leaves a lot to the imagination. That's what makes it theatrical rather than a movie version. The fact that there's three storytellers brings a joy to it."
"We're trying to make it an all-round family experience," says Irvine.
"Boys and their grannies," chips in Anderson.
"Or daughters and their dads," counters Irvine.
Zorro, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Friday until 24 December
• This article first appeared in the 29 November edition of Scotland on Sunday