Playwright Zinnie Harris brings her talents to the International Festival with a triptych
of new works
It’s shaping up to be some summer for Zinnie Harris. As recently as June, she was named Best Director in the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for her work on Caryl Churchill’s A Number at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum earlier this year. And in October, she’ll be in Leeds for the premiere of her translation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Sandwiched in between is the small matter of three productions opening in the Edinburgh International Festival. For a dramatist to have one play staged in the prestigious festival is a coup. To have this many is exceptional. “It’s rather wonderful,” she says.
The most ambitious of the three is Oresteia: This Restless House, not least because it is three plays rolled into one. First seen last year at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, it is a bold female-centric updating of the trilogy written by Aeschylus 2500 years ago.
Harris takes the archetypal story of a family cursed across the generations and turns it into a stunning vision of a society driven to psychological breakdown by a bloody cycle of revenge. The show was the big winner in last year’s CATS, picking up Best New Play (for Harris), Best Female Performance (Pauline Knowles), and Best Director (Dominic Hill).
“For a while, I thought that would be enough of a festival,” laughs Harris about the trilogy, which is being staged in a single four-and-a-half hour marathon with two intervals.
But it just so happened she was also talking to the Royal Lyceum about her translation of the Eugene Ionesco absurdist classic Rhinoceros. She thought it should be staged by the Turkish director Murat Daltaban, with whom she has worked in Istanbul and rates highly.
“We wanted a way to talk about what’s happening in Turkey, Scotland and Europe, and whether there could be a proper collaboration between the two countries,” says Harris. “It’s often said Rhinoceros is about the rise of the right – and it is, to some degree – but I actually think it’s about how public opinion changes almost overnight and how unrecognisable the people around you are. That was the experience of Brexit, but it’s also happening in Turkey, which is changing so astronomically.”
Fergus Linehan, artistic director of the Edinburgh International Festival, liked the sound of that – and once Harris mooted the idea of Meet Me at Dawn, a new two-hander at the Traverse, he had a trilogy on his hands. “Fergus felt it would allow audiences to see a whole strand of work by one writer,” says Harris, whose latest play draws loosely on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as it tackles the sensitive topic of grief.
“I’d wanted to work with the Orpheus and Eurydice myth for a while and found it quite difficult,” she says, recalling the story of the husband who blows his chance of bringing his dead wife back from the Stygian realm when he breaks his agreement with Hades by turning to look at her. “Where do you start the story in order to care enough for the couple? And if he’s not able to look at her, how would you stage the moment they’re together? So I thought, what if you staged the whole play in the moment of the look? If you expanded it and made the look a day, you’d be able to be with your loved one for a limited time – and what would the experience of that be like?”
On the face of it, the three productions are unrelated, but Harris believes audiences will spot common themes. “They all set moments of personal crisis against a backdrop that is changing, evolving and holding people back,” she says. “They’re about how the individual breaks through.
“Meet Me at Dawn and Oresteia: This Restless House are looking at old stories and reinventing them in relationship to the female characters. Rhinoceros is less that – there is a male lead – but it is also talking about how the individual keeps a sense of internal morality in a world where morality is changing. They’re all representative of themes I’ve been working with for a long time. And all three plays work on a mythical level.”
WORDS Mark Fisher
PHOTO Susan Torkington
WHERE & WHEN
Rhinoceros, Royal Lyceum, 3-12 August, times vary, from £10 Tel: 0131 473 2000
Meet Me at Dawn, Traverse, 4-27 August, times vary, from £21.50 Tel: 0131 228 1404
Oresteia: This Restless House, Royal Lyceum, 22-27 August, 6pm, from £10 Tel: 0131 473 2000