Zinnie Harris on her three EIF shows
The Skinny speaks to Zinnie Harris about her not one, not two, but three shows at the Edinburgh International Festival this year
Is Zinnie Harris the most in-demand playwright in Scotland right now? With three plays in this year's Edinburgh International Festival programme, Harris's time is understandably tight. We meet in the Traverse Bar Cafe in the west end of Edinburgh, just before she is due to cycle to the Traverse's rehearsal space in Leith to sit in on rehearsals for Meet Me at Dawn, her latest work.
Her other two plays on the EIF programme are adaptations of classic theatre texts; Rhinoceros, a new version of Eugene Ionesco's play and Oresteia: This Restless House, an adaptation of Aeschylus's 2,500 year-old tale of bloody revenge.
At first glance, the three plays seem to have little in common: Meet Me at Dawn is a two-hander, focusing on a gay couple, Robyn and Helen, torn apart by the sudden death of one of them. Meanwhile, Rhinoceros focuses on a small French village, where, seemingly overnight, the residents start turning into the aforementioned ungulates; This Restless House focuses on family dysfunction and the dark consequences of the characters' murderous actions. However, Harris is quick to explain that this is not the case.
“They're not three plays that you would choose to put beside each other as a trio,” Harris admits, but, while they were not initially designed to fit together, it soon became apparent that while different, each play shared a common theme: grief.
“The thing about grief is it's all about love,” explains Harris, "because you can't experience grief without having loved something or someone. And it turned out that writing a play about grief was the perfect place to explore the various ways in which we grieve a loss, and the often complex emotions involved during the process.
“Theatre, for me, is a contemplation of what it means to be human. It suits grief; it is a place of wishes.”
The experience of writing Meet Me at Dawn was an enlightening one for Harris, who found that alongside the obvious reasons for grief, such as the death of a loved one, there are various other reasons and situations which cause us to grieve. “I was writing this last year, and I was really aware that there are so many different ways to experience grief,” she explains.
Perhaps one of the most universal, or possibly, acceptable reasons for grieving is the sudden death of someone, such as the loss of a partner after an accident, something which the characters in Meet Me at Dawn experience. The play was inspired by the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, who were separated by Eurydice's sudden death. Inconsolable and lost without Eurydice, Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back, and is told he will be successful, as long as he doesn't look back at Eurydice until they arrive back in the real world. Something which he fails to do; turning around just before they reach the surface, and sending Eurydice back to the underworld forever. And it was this moment, this second-long backwards glance between the two lovers that inspired Harris. “He can't get there. As soon as he looks at her, it's all gone."
“In Orpheus and Eurydice, it seemed to be that the real propulsion is the impossibility of death in that you never get to see them again, and that can be almost maddening,” explains Harris. Although she explains that Meet Me At Dawn departs from the Greek myth that inspired it, that feeling of hope and wanting to see a lost loved one for one last time is what helped shape the play.
“You long for one last conversation, one last moment, one last day. But actually, what would it be like if that wish was granted?”
“It's a purer play than some of my other plays in that it's not also talking about politics or society, it's quite a kind of meditational, chamber piece, almost. There's something that's quite pure about it, and maybe that is a bit of a move. That's why it sits so well alongside This Restless House which is quite the opposite, it's as broad a canvas as you can get; it's got a massive cast, and there's so many themes, although a lot of it is still about loss, but a lot of it is about revenge and attachment and guilt. So, there's a whole range of human emotions and I suppose with Meet Me At Dawn I closed it down to love and grief.”
This Restless House premiered at Glasgow Citizen's Theatre last year to both critical and commercial acclaim, and was the result of three years work. Based on the tragic trilogy by Aeschylus, “You can't broach Aeschylus and hold back, you have to meet it squarely on. I was quite tough and rigorous, so that it became this huge intellectual, emotional, theatrical challenge to get it out.”
But if the other two plays appear to balance each other out, Rhinoceros is the wild card of the three. Exploring themes of loss in a totally unique way, Harris worked with David Greig and the radical Turkish theatre company DOT, to create a contemporary re-staging of this bizarre play. It imagines a world where people suddenly regress to an animalistic state, more concerned with “fighting and fucking” and “rolling about in the fields” than they are with being human. Written in 1959, this farce is set in the 1930s and is seen as an allegory for the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. But it also, chillingly shows how quickly humans can adapt to change, no matter how extreme, while mourning the loss of what once was, just like the Brexit result.
While Ionesco's play is obviously farcical, what makes it work so well is its allusions to the wider political landscape of the time, which seems somewhat prophetic now. For Harris, waking up on the morning after the Brexit campaign and seeing the responses of Remain voters on social media, which looked a lot like grief, served as inspiration for her adaptation of Rhinoceros.
“I think we all felt that the world had been turned on its head, which is very similar to a sudden death, you just can't work out which way up you are,” muses Harris. “And I think what Ionesco did is find a really theatrical way of expressing that.”
With three plays in one festival, Harris is clearly in demand in Edinburgh. As it so happens, Harris is also in demand over the border, too. “I've got a play that goes into rehearsal at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 20 Aug."
Meet Me at Dawn, Traverse Theatre, 4-27 Aug (not 7, 14, 21)
Oresteia: This Restless House, The Lyceum, 22-27 Aug
Rhinoceros, The Lyceum, 3-12 Aug (not 7)