Humanity at its Furthest Reaches
Mark Brown asks Zinnie Harris why her play Further Than The Furthest Thing, which is being revived by Dundee Rep, is one of the most acclaimed Scottish plays of modern times
“I had no idea, when I was writing the play, that it would be so successful”, says Zinnie Harris of her drama Further Than The Furthest Thing. When she created the play – which is set on the remote, volcanic South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha, which was her mother’s home until the age of five – she was, she explains, “just writing a play out of my family experience. As far as I was concerned, I was just fulfilling my commission from the Tron Theatre [in Glasgow], and trying to make my way as a playwright.”
What she wrote was a highly original tragedy, based loosely upon real events in 1961. Tristan (a ‘British overseas territory’, which sits at an almost equidistant point between South Africa and Argentina) is the remotest inhabited island on the planet. In 1961 its volcano erupted, leading to evacuation. Harris’s play depicts a highly distinct and isolated culture (complete with its own brilliantly observed version of the English language) at breaking point.
The dramatist was “bowled over” by the excellent audience and critical reception for the piece (a co-production between the Tron Theatre, Glasgow and the National Theatre in London) when it premiered at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2000. She remains pleased and surprised whenever a new production turns up “in Turkey, or Japan, or wherever.”
Dundee Rep is now reviving the play as the farewell production of its outgoing director James Brining. How does Harris account for the immense and continued interest in the drama in the UK and internationally? “James [Brining] is very clear about its central theme being about modernisation”, she says. “We see a community coming out of an almost Napoleonic set up, and encountering a modern Britain, and having to decide how much of it they want. Maybe there is something of that in every place and time that it’s performed.
“When I was doing research for the play”, she continues, “I came across stories of people starving during both world wars, because the Tristan islanders were, essentially, forgotten. There was also a sense of shame that their way of life was not actually sustainable without assistance from the outside world.”
Anyone who divulges the key moments of Harris’s plot should be deposited on a remote (and uninhabited) island. Suffice it to say that Further Than The Furthest Thing exemplifies the definition of tragedy as being the exploration of human experience at its furthest reaches.
“I think that’s what I’m trying to do in my work generally”, Harris agrees. “When you are writing a play, you should be doing more than just trying to write a good story; you should be looking at some corner of human existence or decision making that is thorny. You should be asking, ‘what are we [human beings] like?’, ‘how would I react in these kind of extreme circumstances?’”
As Dundee Rep audiences are, one hopes, about to find out, Harris’s play is still asking those questions with an undimmed and resonating power.
Further Than The Furthest Thing is at Dundee Rep from April 24 to May 5. For further information, visit: http://www.dundeerep.co.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 22, 2012
© Mark Brown