Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Zinnie Harris - This Restless House

All is quiet in Zinnie Harris' house on the south side of Edinburgh. In a leafy suburb on Easter Bank Holiday Monday afternoon this should come as no surprise, but given that Harris has opted to call her adaptation of Aeschylus' ancient Greek epic trilogy, The Oresteia, This Restless House, the quietude is initially disarming. As it is, such a peaceful atmosphere has been key to Harris channeling her creative energies into reinventing an already volatile work for a twenty-first century audience.

Not that Harris has chosen to contemporise Aeschylus' family-driven trilogy in an explicitly modern setting, as should be clear when her marathon undertaking opens at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow in co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland next week. Rather, as with some of Harris' increasingly expansive works, This Restless House occupies a historical no man's land that puts women at its heart.

For those not already versed in Greek tragedy, Aeschylus' original trilogy is a bloody saga of revenge, justice and a family ripped apart en route to redemption following the fallout of Clytemnestra's slaying of her husband Agamemnon. In Harris' version, reinvented here as Agamemnon's Return, The Bough Breaks and Electra and Her Shadow, Clytemnestra is not only seen as less of a villain, but her daughter Electra comes more to the fore, while the lingering presence of her other daughter, Iphigenia, becomes a key force driving Clytemnestra's actions.

“It is massive,” Harris says of the undertaking which has occupied much of the last three years of her working life. “I think in my own original work the stories have been reaching for something more epic, and although it is a family story, I've really nested it in the psychology of the piece and put the women more centre-stage.”

Given the choice and tone of some of her other stage adaptations, which include versions of Strindberg's Miss Julie, revived at the Citizens with Louise Brealey in the title role, and Ibsen's A Doll's House, which featured Gillian Anderson as Nora, it's not difficult to speculate where Harris might be coming from with This Restless House.

“I think when you approach anything there's got to be a two-fold thing going on, she says. “One is that you love the original in some way, but secondly you have to feel that you've got something to bring to it, and if you don't feel that then you're best leaving it to the original.

“I felt I had a kind of take, initially on Clytemnestra, that I wanted to explore. I wanted to render it as something that would feel like a contemporary play, and I think it does feel like three new plays by me, but ones which use Aeschylus' structure and story.

“One thing was to get all those things that happen offstage put back on it, so let's have the murder in front of us. The other thing running alongside that was revisiting characters in terms of the received archetypes we have of them. So Clytemnestra is often viewed as this Lady Macbeth type figure, and this incarnation of evil who is plotting to kill Agamemnon with her lover.

“I had a slightly different view on Clytemnestra, and saw her as a woman and a mother who lived in a time where the sacrifice or murder of her daughter would go unpunished, and where she had no recourse to anything else but to kill Agamemnon. She expected him to be killed on the battlefield, and I wondered if it would be interesting if it was harder for her to kill him.”

It is here that Iphigenia's role becomes crucial, while Electra takes a more dominant role.

“Iphigenia is completely absent in the original,” Harris points out, “so she was a blank slate for me to imagine the simplicity of a little girl playing on the sand waiting for her dad. In my version Electra has a claustrophobic relationship with Clytemnestra, so it becomes much more about a mother and daughter.

“There are odd things in the plays as well to do with the murder which I felt were slightly unnecessary. The catastrophe in the domestic is all that is required here for the enormity of these feelings to be unleashed, and I felt that this was big enough.”

The chorus too become more integral to the action, while in the third play, Harris introduces a new character who looks at the extreme actions that have occurred with a less celestial sense of judgement than Aeschylus' gods brought to the table.

“That would have felt for a modern audience like a piece of custodianship,” Harris says, “and I wanted to see part three through our eyes, and find out how we might deal today with someone who is running away from the Furies.”

This Restless House arrives at a time when the roots of Greek theatre are being reassessed in a variety of ways. Gary Owen's play, Iphigenia in Splott, which the Cardiff-based Sherman Cymru company toured recently to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, cast Iphigenia as a hoodied-up wild child. Next up at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, meanwhile, is Chris Hannan's new take on Homer's Iliad.

“It's interesting,” says Harris, “because I remember six or seven years ago someone mentioned the Greeks, and it felt really out there, but maybe we're reaching for these big stories because it teaches us something about how we live now.”

Harris says that writing This Restless House has been a learning experience for her as a playwright.

“I think my writing in some ways has turned several corners, particularly in the third part, where the play argues very strongly for a jury and democracy, however flawed that might be. It's certainly not making a political statement, and yet I think you do have to try and say something about our times. The whole story is about faith and vengeance, so there's a lot to be said, but you have to be careful how you tell that story, and recreate it in a way to make sure it's still making its point.”

In the contemporary terms that Harris has set down, This Restless House as a whole becomes an almighty personification of a psychological process that explodes onto the stage in a mess of flesh and blood rage.

“It's all about the extreme nature of domestic psychological distress,” she says. “What do we do when we feel let down, and when we feel vengeful? How do we process that? If Aeschylus is telling us anything, it's how we process extreme rage and how we cope with that without unleashing catastrophe on everybody around us. That's something we all have to process at some point in our lives. Almost everybody goes through some kind of calamity, and this is about a process of grief and acceptance.”

This Restless House, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 15-May 14. Part 1: Agamemnon's Return, April 15-16, 26, 28, May 3, 5, 10, 12, 7pm, April 30, May 7, 14, 2pm; Part 2: The Bough Breaks and Part 3: Electra and Her Shadow, April 22-23, 27, 29-30, May 4, 6, 7, 11, 13-14, 7pm. The full This Restless House trilogy can be seen over one day on April 30, May 7 and May 14.
www.citz.co.uk

The Herald, April 12th 2016

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