The absurd and the sublime
Playwright Zinnie Harris has three productions in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival programme. She spoke to Mark Brown about a trio of very diverse works
When I meet acclaimed playwright Zinnie Harris at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre she is “very pleased, excited and nervous”. As well she might be. The author of such outstanding plays as Further Than The Furthest Thing and Midwinter, Harris is having no fewer than three productions of her work staged as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival (EIF).
First up is Rhinoceros (Royal Lyceum, until August 12), Harris’s adaptation of the great Franco-Romanian writer Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic in which political and social conformism transforms the people of a tranquil little French town into rhinos. A co-production between Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum company and DOT Theatre of Istanbul, it is directed by Murat Daltaban, founder of the Turkish company.
That is followed by Meet Me At Dawn (Traverse, until August 27), a new play by Harris which traces the physical and emotional journeys of two shipwrecked women who are washed up in a strange land. A drama about loss and grief, it is “lightly inspired” by the ancient story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Finally, in the last week of the Festival, there is a revival of This Restless House (Royal Lyceum, August 22-27), Harris’s award-winning version (first staged at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow last year) of Aeschylus’s great, classical play cycle The Oresteia.
Such a celebration of a playwright’s work at a prestigious international festival is an honour usually reserved for dead writers, such as Shakespeare or Beckett. However, the mini-festival of Harris plays is more than justified.
A multiple award-winning theatremaker, she received the Best Director award (for her staging of Caryl Churchill’s drama A Number) at the 2017 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) and Best New Play (for This Restless House) at the 2016 CATS. She also teaches in theatre studies at the University of St Andrews, at which she recently became a professor.
This platform for Harris’s theatre is typical of the bold programming of EIF director Fergus Linehan who has, since taking over at the 2015 Festival, brought a fresh perspective to the drama offering. In particular, he has abolished the old restriction that Scottish theatre’s input to the Festival be only one production, and a world premiere at that.
Harris is grateful for Linehan’s faith in her work, and pleased by his approach to Scottish theatre. “It used to be that the Scottish production was a sitting duck”, she says, remembering how Scottish premieres used to be up against celebrated, well-established shows from around the world.
There is pressure, she acknowledges, in having three productions staged in the same Festival. That is alleviated somewhat, however, by the inclusion of This Restless House.
“I’m enormously proud of it”, she says. “It’s tried and tested. We just have to get it back on its feet the way it was last year.”
An adaptation of a modernist classic (Rhinoceros), a new version of a classical, Greek tragedy (This Restless House) and a new play that nods towards a Greek myth (Meet Me At Dawn). I suggest to Harris that the three works exemplify her theatrical output, which has one foot in modernism and the other in classicism.
“I think you’re right”, she says. She has always been attracted, she continues, to, “the big movements of myth”, and plays in which, “you don’t just hurt someone, you gouge their eyes out.
“I’m so drawn to that big canvas, both in terms of its theatricality and as a way of interpreting the world now.”
In the case of Rhinoceros that means an ostensibly comic event (people turning into rhinos) which has a powerful political resonance, not least in director Daltaban’s homeland of Turkey, where President Erdogan is in the midst of shutting down voices of dissent.
“What it’s about is the rise of populism”, Harris suggests, “suddenly you look around your neighbours and you don’t recognise them.
“It’s absurd, it’s funny. At moments we’re laughing at how ridiculous the rhinoceroses are. At other times we’re horrified… What Morat has brought is a profound sense of sadness.”
When it came to writing Meet Me At Dawn, Harris originally envisaged the lead characters being a man and woman (like Orpheus and Eurydice). “Every play is a notebook to your life”, she comments. “Maybe it was because of stuff that was going on with me, that the play had started to be about differences between men and women”, the playwright adds, referring to the sudden breakdown of her marriage (to composer John Harris) last year.
However, as the writing progressed, Harris realised that she didn’t want the play to be tied up in gender politics. The drama she has written is, she believes, “a gentle play” which is “purely about grief and love”.
In This Restless House Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War to find his wife, Clytemnestra, enraged. His daughter, Electra, (rather than his son Orestes) is the spear tip of the anger against him for his sacrificing of another of his daughters, Iphigenia, to the gods.
For Harris, the Oresteia trilogy was ripe for a modern reinterpretation. “What if Clytemnestra is not already evil? What if she’s a mum who’s had to live through her daughter being sacrificed by her husband, and she knew she lived in a time when she wouldn’t get justice for that?”
Questions which This Restless House answers with stunning, dramatic power. Theatre lovers who missed the play cycle in Glasgow last year are in for a treat.
Mies Julie, Assembly Rooms, until August 27
The welcome return of Yael Farber’s excoriating version of Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie, presented on the Fringe by the Baxter Theatre Centre of South Africa. Bringing the Swedish bard’s tale of mangled gender and class relations into the context of race in modern South Africa, it is one of the truly great theatre productions of recent times.
Krapp’s Last Tape, Church Hill Theatre, until August 27
Beckett’s brilliant, bleakly comic monodrama is performed as part of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) programme by the superb Irish actor Barry McGovern and directed by Michael Colgan, artistic director of Dublin’s famous Gate Theatre.
How To Act, Summerhall, until August 27
Written and directed by Graham Eatough (one of the founders of the celebrated Scottish company Suspect Culture), How To Act plunges a fictional, male theatre director and an aspiring, young actress into the cauldron of a contested masterclass. Presented on the Fringe by the National Theatre of Scotland, this new play promises shades of David Mamet’s acclaimed drama Oleanna.
Real Magic, The Studio, August 22-27
Internationally renowned, Sheffield-based avant-garde performance company Forced Entertainment take to the EIF stage with a production which collides popular culture with deeper, underlying social, political and personal concerns. Described by the company as “part mind-reading feat, part cabaret act, part chaotic game show”, it seems set to be an hilarious, thought provoking and emotive evening’s theatre.
Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid, The Hub, until August 27
The European premiere of this “subversive cabaret” take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, by Australia’s “post-post-modern diva” Meow Meow and Malthouse Theatre of Melbourne. A hit at last year’s EIF for her take on the Weimar songbook (performed with Barry Humphries), Meow Meow’s show is a shoo-in for cult Festival status.
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 6, 2017
© Mark Brown