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Zinnie Harris - Oresteia, Rhinoceros and Meet Me at Dawn

Zinnie Harris may have three plays on at this year's Edinburgh International Festival, but as she wishes to make clear from the off, it's not a retrospective. The fact that one of them is a speedy revival of a work originally presented as a trilogy, one a new adaptation of a twentieth century classic, and one a brand new work, seems to validate the increasingly prolific Edinburgh based writer and director's claim. The three productions also see Harris and EIF teaming up with three of Scotland's major producing houses as well as enabling an international collaboration with a company from Turkey.

First out the traps for the Harris season, if we can call it that, is Rhinoceros, a new version of the 1959 play by Romanian absurdist and contemporary of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, in which the population of a small French town turn into rhinoceroses. Often read as a warning about the rise of Nazi-ism before World War Two, director Murat Daltaban's co-production between the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh and the Istanbul-based DOT Theatre should be given new relevance by recent events in Turkey and elsewhere.

The day after Rhinoceros opens, the Traverse presents the first preview of Meet Me At Dawn, a brand new play by Harris, which uses the Orpheus and Eurydice myth as a starting point for an exploration of loss and grief. Traverse artistic head Orla O'Loughlin will direct.

The Citizens Theatre's revival of Oresteia: This Restless House, Harris' epic reimagining of Aeschylus' ancient trilogy of tragedies continues Harris' drawing from Greek roots. Dominic Hill's mighty production duly won him the 2016 Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland Best Director award, while it was also named as Best Play. Harris followed this up by scooping this year's Best Director award for her own Lyceum production of Caryl Churchill's play, A Number.

The latter point is telling, because, while all three of Harris' EIF plays come from classical roots, as with Churchill's work, they all deal with both the personal and the political in ways that play with narrative form. Despite Harris' experience writing for television on shows such as Spooks, all three are steeped in various forms of theatricality which wouldn't translate easily to the small screen.

“They are all very different pieces of work,” says Harris. “People are going to see a range of my writing, but hopefully they'll also see where my writing overlaps, and what it is I've been trying to do with each of them. This Restless House feels like something that's been tried and tested, whereas Meet Me At Dawn and Rhinoceros are going to be evolving in the rehearsal room.

“What's nice about revisiting a piece of work is that you get a second chance to fine-tune. That's a completely different level of interaction and process to Rhinoceros, which I'm working on in a much more muscular way. Then, because Meet Me At Dawn is brand new, it feels like a completely different proposition, and one feels a certain level of nervousness as one puts it out there. It's quite close to me in some ways. It's much more an exploration of a set of emotions, and a quieter tale that feels closer to my experience and the experience of others, maybe, than that big Greek epic story.”

A little Greek can still be found in Meet Me At Dawn, however, which Harris describes as “a story of a woman's journey through grief. My inspiration was Orpheus and Eurydice, but in fact it parts from that almost straight away. What I think is interesting about Orpheus and Eurydice is the obsession to see their loved one one more time, and I just took that as a jumping off point, really. Orpheus was allowed to walk out of the Underworld in the belief that Eurydice was following him, providing he never actually saw her, and what I suppose is my sort of thought experiment, is what if you did actually get to see the departed person, but it was in a very time limited way, so you literally got a day. What would that day feel like, what would it be like?

“I think the thing about Greek is that it can comes from a place of magical thinking, because you can get lost in the what if of things. What if this had played out differently? What if that accident hadn't have happened? What if these events had turned out another way? I think we can collectively do that sometimes when a political event goes the wrong way. You spend weeks going, what if that hadn't happened, and those processes of denial and self delusion almost happen in those moments too.”

Harris was writing Meet Me At Dawn in the wake of the result of the Brexit referendum, “when there was probably a lot of collective denial and disbelief and lack of acceptance in lots of different ways. Not just personally, but also politically, and I suppose I felt that exploring the what ifs and the land of Never-Never seemed like a fruitful place for a play.”

In a post-Brexit world, Rhinoceros heightens such notions even more, particularly given the current state of political affairs in Turkey.

“There was always a sense that we had to get this on quickly,” Harris says of the play, “because the world is changing so fast. People often say that Rhinoceros is a play about the rise of the right. To some degree it is, but I actually think it's a play about a crowd mentality suddenly coming up with a way of looking at the world that feels completely at odds with something that they would've thought a few months before. It's about that moment where there's a sort of collective turning on their head of upheld principles, and how there's something scary and unstoppable about that. Once that starts, there's a momentum and an energy to it that you can't really stand up against, and that I think is utterly timeless, because we don't know what's going to happen.”

The umbilical threads that bind each of Harris' EIF plays may not be obvious, but, again, as with Caryl Churchill's work, the meeting of the personal and the political are at their heart.

“I think they are all stories that combine a kind of personal moment of crisis against a backdrop that's either political,” says Harris, “or else they have to work their way out of something that's constraining them. In Meet Me At Dawn, there is the moment of crisis, which is the understanding that these two people have lost each other, and somehow work out a way to contain that and cope with it. In a sense, the whole play is about coming to terms with those things, and dealing with the hand that'd been dealt. In all three plays I think there is something about the personal experience, and looking at that in a contemporary context against a backdrop of constraint.”

Rhinoceros, The Lyceum, Edinburgh, August 3-12, 7.30-9.40pm; Meet Me At Dawn, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 4-27, various times; Oresteia: This Restless House, The Lyceum, Edinburgh, August 22-27, 6-10.25pm.

 
The Herald, July 18th 2017

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