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Zinnie Harris - Fall

When Zinnie Harris embarked on writing a trilogy of plays about war five years ago, the idea of a politically engaged theatrical mainstream was still only being taken half seriously by those who saw such a notion as a hangover from the 1970s. Half a decade on, and The Traverse Theatre’s two flagship productions for this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe are steeped explicitly in the nowness of ongoing international turmoil. Where Simon Stephens’ play, Pornography, looks at the aftermath of 7/7, Zinnie Harris’s seasonally titled Fall, which follows Midwinter and Solstice, imagines those caught in the crossfire of a war crimes trial.

Two days before the opening of her new play, and on what turns out to be the same day that Bosnian war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic is arrested, Harris is understandably twitchy when talking about her new play, even as she puts it in context.

“Each play,” she says, “looks at a different aspect of war and the responses to it. Solstice looks at what happens before the war and what happens to communities that go into war, Midwinter is smack bang in the middle, and Fall takes place after the war. I think all of them look at how people try to stay in touch with themselves and try to find the way to do what they feel to be the right thing, even though they may be bombarded by hideous things. It comes from my feeling of what the response is, sitting here in the west hearing all these terrible tales, then going off and having a drink with someone. There’s one character who’s just had a baby and got what she wants, and her response is that whatever happens out there happens out there, and she’s not going to engage with it.

“That’s a very recognisable set of responses, where people don’t watch the news and close down and get on with their lives. Then there’s another character who feels like because there’s these terrible things going on, you have a kind of duty to read as much as you can, and she ends up in a very destructive way. Somewhere between the two is where we all live.”

Harris’ emphasis on the all too human responses to such volatile situations aren’t so far removed from some of her other work. Her breakthrough play, the island-set Further Than The Furthest Thing, looked at how a community was transplanted into mainland society following the eruption of a volcano, while Nightingale and Chase looked at a relationship after one party’s release from prison. Like them, Fall is in some way about individuals coping with enforced upheaval. With real life events constantly threatening to become a whole lot stranger than fiction, Fall is quite literally a minefield of a very different kind.

“Given what’s going on in the world around us,” Harris says, “I think it would be very odd not to be writing about this sort of thing, or writing a farce or something. But it has to come from your own view and the things you struggle with. One of the questions in the play is how you bring a child into all this. How does someone personally with a lack of hope bout the world, how does one make children feel that it’s an okay place? That’s difficult. It’s too easy for us in the west to say that capital punishment is the wrong thing to do. Actually, the only people who can say it’s the wrong thing to do is the people who’ve been through the crime. I’m not suggesting that capital punishment is right, because I’m very much against it, but there’s a clarity that we have in the west of what we think is right and wrong, which probably isn’t so clear cut for those in the hick of things. But the only way that progress can be made is not by imposition from the west. Progress can only happen internally once people change how they feel about themselves.”

Fall isn’t, then, a black and white polemic. Rather, Harris is exploring the ambiguities of an already complex situation in a way that doesn’t offer any easy answers. With this in mind, it’s perhaps telling that, beyond theatre, Harris has written episodes of TV drama, Spooks, which looks at undercover agents operating in similarly emotive situations. As generic as this may sound, and as glossy as it appeared, for a British drama series to be both so highly charged in its dealing with already incendiary material is itself an act of subversion on mainstream prime-time fodder. For Harris, working on the programme was something of a liberation.

“Spooks gave me the confidence to be more overtly political than I’d been up to that point,” Harris admits. “Fall is still set in a world that could be anywhere, but it’s a lot less allegorical than some of my other work. That’s all been political with a small p, but Spooks really geared me up for pushing things somewhere else. I’d never really thought of myself as someone who would ever write anything that people would see as political but once I’d done Spooks, I thought that I could, and didn’t have to bury something in the middle of the Atlantic. Also, the amount of story you need to write an hour of Spooks is phenomenal. So one’s narrative muscle gets built up, and you have to be endlessly resourceful, so that helps too. But sometimes you’d come out of script conferences having just had to consider how World War Three might happen, and really feel like the world was going to end.”

While each play in Harris’ war trilogy stands alone in their own right, and aren’t linked by overlapping characters, together they form a solid body of work that might make even more sense watched in one sitting. In this respect they resemble David Hare’s look at how the British establishment functions in his early 1990s trio of Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence Of War.

“I’d love them to be done together,” says Harris of her own works. “But they’re not even necessarily set in the same place. They just need to have a river and a population. So it’s not a trilogy in the conventional way. The first play is about hatred the second is about what comes out of that, and Fall in a way is about healing.”

After five years on a fictional frontline, then, Harris too will be able to walk away from the worlds she’s created. Her next theatre piece will be a version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and will star Gillian Anderson as Nora. This follows her adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which looked upon a woman more usually presumed to be one of drama’s most ruthless female characters in a more sympathetic light.

“You go into these things wanting to add something new,” Harris says of these adaptations, “and there’s a bit of me in that as well. Plays are always grappling with something, and sometimes you feel really bleak about the world. As a writer, you channel all those concerns into your work. That’s probably how you stop yourself from going mad.”

Fall, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Previews tonight-Sat, 7pm and Aug 2nd, 2pm, then Aug 3-24, various times

The Herald, July 24th 2008

ends

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