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The Wheel - Zinnie Harris Turns The World Upside Down

What would you do if you met Hitler as a toddler, forewarned Dr
Who-like of the mass genocide the future Nazi leader would inflict on
the twentieth century? Would you do the world a favour and kill him
quickly and without fuss? Or would you embrace the seemingly innocent
mite to one's bosom, vowing to protect him from whichever ills would
otherwise corrupt his infant sensibilities with such disastrous
consequences?

Such a dilemma is the hypothetical sort of stuff usually played out by
liberal intellectuals on The Moral Maze. It's also the starting point
for The Wheel, a major new play by Zinnie Harris for the National
Theatre of Scotland, which plays as part of the Traverse Theatre's
Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme in a production by NTS artistic
director Vicky Featherstone. As with many things about the play,
though, looks can be deceptive.

The play may open in a nineteenth century Spanish village on the eve of
both a wedding and a war, and initially captures the stultifying
passions of a Lorca play. As its female heart Beatriz defies the
warlords who descend on her, however, it has already become something
else again. Even when it is clear that something as epic as Brecht's
Mother Courage is about to be set in motion, once a silent little girl
appears one's expectations are upended even more as we're taken on a
journey through an all too familiar set of warzones that can't help but
dehumanise all those who bear witness. Or can it?

“I think there's something about children who commit atrocious acts,”
says Harris, “we kind of demonise them without thinking about it. I
wanted to explore if that perception can be altered if we go round
again. What happens in the play is that this little girl is given a
huge amount of power, and that's what corrupts her.”

As Harris observes, when things go wrong, children have always been
regarded as either little devils or little angels. Think of the tabloid
outrage whenever one apparently evil minor kills an innocent of their
own age or younger. In this respect, while Harris puts all this on an
altogether grander and less personal scale in The Wheel, she is
effectively talking about psychological notions of nature versus
nurture, or rather, the points where genetic and environmental
influences intertwine.

“It's neither one thing or another, “ maintains Harris. “It's a
composite.”

At the time of talking, Harris is taking time out from rehearsals of
The Wheel for a short family holiday in Wales. It sounds idyllic, but,
as a mother to young children herself, Harris recognises the perils of
child-rearing first-hand.

“As a mum I hear stories and know of situations,” she says, “and
recognise certain parallels, but when these horrific things happen, you
have to try and unpick things and try and find the moment where things
went wrong, and we must be careful that we're raising our children in a
healthy way.”

As with her play, this is a theme Harris returns to again and again in
conversation. It's as if by taking this one idea as her starting point,
it's opened up a nightmarish set of scenarios that constantly come back
to the same umbilical root.

Harris is no stranger to such troubling material. Indeed, war and human
responses to it have formed the backdrop to an entire trilogy of plays,
with Midwinter and Solstice being produced by the Royal Shakespeare
Company, while the final part, Fall, was seen at the Traverse. This
back-catalogue of brutality seems at odds with Harris' own, ever so
slightly blue-stockingish demeanour, something which she has already
been made aware of..

“When Graham Whybrow was literary manager at the Royal Court,” Harris
says of one of her early mentors, “he said that the contrast between my
work and my personality was unrecognisable. But I'm aware as well of
how easy it is to create a bubble around our children and still be
aware of all the shit going on in the world outside. We've a
responsibility to them, but in the play this is different. This is
about the nature of evil and how we raise children.”

With a cast of twelve plus two all but silent children onstage, The
Wheel isn't short on ambition or scope. Yet, while Harris herself
happily acknowledges her piece as a response to Mother Courage - “I'm
obsessed with that play” - as well as aspects of the conflict between
Bolingbroke and Mowbrey in Shakespeare's Richard 11, she takes things
further. Without giving too much away, it would be fair to suggest that
The Wheel takes an uncharted and all too rare leap into magical-realist
territory.

“I wanted to lull the audience into a false sense of security,” says
Harris. “So that in the first scene, you think you've got a handle on
what's going on, but then something else happens and you're somewhere
else, and it becomes this tremendous journey. It's such a complicated
piece of work, and I remember handing in this very embryonic first
draft which probably made no sense, but Vicky getting very excited by
it. One of the things about being a playwright as well is that you're
only ever asked to write things for four or five people, but having a
woman walking round the world and being changed by it was never going
to be a play for four or five people.”

Whatever its form, at The Wheel's heart lies an innate humanity that is
Harris' all too personal stock in trade.

“What I think you do when writing plays,” she says, “or what I do, is
ask what makes a person, and what happens when things don't work out
and we end up damning these people. Basically I think that we need to
wake up and smell the coffee and look at how we raise children. We need
to go into these situations with a high degree of care, and if they go
wrong we need to pull things back and ask why. I'm both a parent and a
playwright, but the two interface, and one reflects the preoccupations
in my own life.”

If that sounds like Harris is bestowing both her life and work with a
massive sense of responsibility, it's probably only because she is. Yet
there's that equally huge contradiction again, between the weight of
the world's ills that The Wheel takes on board, and its author's innate
niceness. Besides which, on paper, at least, The Wheel most expressly
doesn't hammer you over the head with a set of pat ideological kill or
cure solutions. For all its ugly truths, as well, according to Harris,
The Wheel is a play full of something resembling hope.

“I hope the final moments will be a positive experience,” she says.
“Some of my work is very dark, but I don't necessarily think this play
is. There are a lot of light moments in The Wheel as well. There are
moments that are tough, but I hope it's not a totally bleak
experience.”

The Wheel, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, July 28th-August 28th
www.traverse.co.uk
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

The Herald, July 26th 2011

ends

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