Playwright Zinnie Harris: ‘The rehearsal room is the place of real discoveries’

Zinnie Harris. Photo: Susan Torkington Zinnie Harris. Photo: Susan Torkington

With three shows playing at the EIF it is a busy month for playwright Zinnie Harris. She tells Thom Dibdin about modernising classical female roles, being a theatre animal and exploring the ‘new order’ in Britain

Rebecca Benson in The Wheel, by Zinnie Harris. Photo: Robbie Jack
Rebecca Benson in The Wheel, by Zinnie Harris. Photo: Robbie Jack

Zinnie Harris is about to have a pretty extra­ordinary August. Three of the Edinburgh-based writer’s plays are appearing at the city’s international festival at the same time, though apparently it is more by coincidence than design.

It is going to be a busy month, she says, as we walk from the Lyceum Theatre, where her new adaptation of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros goes into rehearsal that afternoon, round the corner to the Traverse Theatre, where her new play – Meet Me at Dawn – will get its first read-through the following day.

The third production is a revival of the National Theatre of Scotland and Glasgow Citizens Theatre 2016 co-production of Oresteia: This Restless House. The modern take on Aeschylus’ classic Greek tragedy is so much more than just a retread of the original that it won last year’s best new play at the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS).

Harris will be in the rehearsal room for both of the new productions. She is, by her own admission, a theatre animal who always loved being in and around theatres, rehearsal rooms, actors and writers. Indeed, she first set out to be a director, gaining an MA in theatre direction at Hull University to go on top of her zoology degree, and was back at the CATS this year to collect the best director gong for her work on Caryl Churchill’s A Number.

“There is something about theatre and the way of telling stories in front of an audience – and particularly those stories that can’t also be told on film or by a novel – that moves and inspires me,” she says.

Peter Forbes and Brian-Ferguson in A Number, directed by Zinnie Harris, at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Aly Wight

“What I really love about theatre is being in the rehearsal room. I think the rehearsal room is the place of real discoveries. It is where the writer’s work meets the actor’s and the director’s work in anticipation of meeting the audience.”

The three productions are very different approaches to making a piece of theatre and show various aspects of Harris’ preoccupations and work. They bring together different threads of a career that has always been a bit more than just about writing scripts.

“Early on, but even now, I always wanted to stay working in communities,” she says, referencing her job as writer-in-residence at Edinburgh Aids hospice Milestone House in the late 1990s.

“I was working with people who sometimes were not very well – the whole hospice movement is about taking ownership of your own death – and people had a lot to say as they were approaching death.”

‘A play is a kind of notebook to your life and the richer your life is, the richer your experiences are, the richer your work is’

It was the time when combination therapy was just starting, creating extra turbulence for the HIV community. Writing was a way of processing that, and Harris ended up creating a community performance with Robert Rae at Theatre Workshop.

She later worked with theatre company Clean Break as writer-in-residence at Askham Grange open prison. While she was employed to deliver writing workshops, she says there was an understanding she would also be writing a play that used her experiences to reflect the sort of preoccupations women prisoners have.

The emerging play became Nightingale and Chase, staged at London’s Royal Court in 2001, about the disparity between expectation and reality for women coming to the end of long prison sentences and re-entering society.

“I just think you want to stay in touch with the world, in touch with people,” says Harris. “You can’t just dream it all out of your head. For me, writing a play is a kind of notebook to your life and the richer your life is, the richer your experiences are, the richer your work is.

Scene from This Restless House at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. Photo: Tim Morozzo
A scene from This Restless House, written by Zinnie Harris, at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. Photo: Tim Morozzo

“If you are talking to people about their experience then that is informing your writing and I think there is some responsibility to reflect lives that are different to your own.”

The other important thread to Harris’ writing has seen her revisiting received female characters. It is perhaps best shown in her work on This Restless House, where she brings modern understanding and psychology to Aeschylus’ original trilogy. Here is a psychoanalysis of the fundamental family that looks at notions of trauma, conflict and forgiveness.

She had already brought a modern eye to her 2009 adaptation of A Doll’s House for London’s Donmar Warehouse, where she reconceived Henrik Ibsen’s Nora as we might understand a woman now. And similarly for Julie, her 2006 adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, for the National Theatre of Scotland.

Q&A: Zinnie Harris

What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked for [Edinburgh ethnic shop] The Nomads Tent one holiday, just selling stuff on the shop floor. It was freezing cold in those days, I must have been about 13.

What was your first professional theatre job?
The box office at Theatre Workshop in 1996. I was pretty terrible and kept on screwing up the credit card machine.

What’s your next job?
A new version of The Master Builder for James Brining at West Yorkshire Playhouse, so I am back to working on Ibsen.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
In order to be properly playful, rigorous and democratic, the rehearsal room has to have the freedom to go down blind allies. It can be quite uncomfortable for an inexperienced writer to sit there while something is being robustly played with.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
I was very influenced by Sarah Kane and her grappling with the big stage pictures. For me, one of the things you can do with theatre – or that theatre does and should do – is really explore what it is to be human. Sometimes that means going to the dark place and I think Kane was very unafraid to do that.

What’s your best advice for sending script ideas to theatres?
If you are going to submit an idea to a theatre, make sure you go and see a play there. Make sure there is a taste similarity.

If you hadn’t been a playwright and director, what would you have been?
There was a moment where I nearly applied for medicine. In the end I did zoology, and I think I just chickened out.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t think I have any personal ones. But my wonderful mum and dad always send me a bunch of flowers for an opening night to the stage door.

“I had this incredible opportunity with Clytemnestra,” she says. “I think the Clytemnestra we are given is quite close to Lady Macbeth: she is already evil, she is a murderess when the play starts and more or less her first act is to murder her husband on his return.

“But there is another way of looking at this. She is a wife and a mother and, as her husband left to go to war, his last act was to sacrifice their daughter. She lived in a time when the ritual murder of her daughter would go unpunished and he went away for 10 years, leaving her to run the country.

“I felt that there was a moment to bring much more understanding of what it would be like to be that woman – and then to carry on working with the female characters. Rather than it becoming Orestes’ act of revenge, to kill his mother, I keep working with the little girl who has become Electra.”

‘When writing, there is some responsibility to reflect lives that are different to your own’

The two new works at the Edinburgh International Festival also continue strands in Harris’ existing work. Rhinoceros is a co-production between the Lyceum and Dot Theatre of Istanbul, with whom Harris has an established relationship since she was part of a Royal Court and British Council project for which they sent people out to different parts of the world to work with emerging writers.

She says she has brought a light touch to Ionesco’s 1959 original as it “didn’t need reinvention but to be delivered in a way that feels seamless with the world we live in now”. It will be directed by Dot’s founder Murat Daltaban and performed by a company of actors from Scotland and Turkey.

“The first thing I saw of theirs was Fragile, the David Greig play. I just thought it was sensational, the way he staged it. I just thought: ‘My God, this is an extraordinary director,’ so then when we went out we always saw their work. Even though it was in Turkish, there was something stunning about the staging.”

Meet Me at Dawn is a Traverse production for the EIF. And it was through the Traverse that Harris got her first piece of paid creative work when John Tiffany commissioned a 15-minute play as part of the Sharp Shorts initiative.

Andy Clark, Georgina Sowerby and Samantha Young in Julie, written by Zinnie Harris. Photo: Peter Dibdin
Andy Clark, Georgina Sowerby and Samantha Young in Julie, written by Zinnie Harris. Photo: Peter Dibdin

Although the resulting script was not used, the Traverse gave her some development days. The work turned into By Many Wounds, which was Harris’ first professional play, staged at Hampstead Theatre in London in 1999.

Harris is now associate director at the Traverse, where her big Edinburgh Fringe hits have been performed. These include her breakthrough second play, the award-winning Glasgow Tron Theatre and National Theatre 2000 co-production of Further Than the Furthest Thing – which is still being revived every six months or so – and the NTS’ 2011 production The Wheel.

And while Meet Me at Dawn is completely new, it is still inspired by an old text, as Harris explains: “I wanted to explore love and grief. The jumping-off point for me was what is expressed in Orpheus and Eurydice by the fact that Orpheus will not accept that he won’t see her again.

“When I was writing Meet Me at Dawn, it was just post-Brexit. I felt that, as a population, a lot of people were saying: ‘But it can’t be, we must be able to unpick it.’ Around sudden change or sudden devastation, there is this inability to accept the new order and I wanted to explore that.”

CV Zinnie Harris

Born: 1972, Oxford
Training: MA in Theatre Direction, Hull University
Landmark productions: Further Than the Furthest Thing, National Theatre (2000); Midwinter, Royal Shakespeare Company (2004); How to Hold Your Breath, Royal Court, London (2015)
Awards: Fringe First for Further Than the Furthest Thing, 2001; Arts Foundation Fellowship for Playwriting for Midwinter, 2004; Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award for The Wheel, 2011; Fringe First for The Wheel, 2011; Critics Award for Theatre in Scotland for best new play for Oresteia: This Restless House, 2016; Critics Award for Theatre in Scotland for best direction for A Number, 2017
Agent: Casarotto Ramsay

Part of the Edinburgh International Festival, Rhinoceros is at the Lyceum Theatre, August 3-12; Meet Me at Dawn is at the Traverse Theatre, August 4-27 and Oresteia: This Restless House is at the Lyceum, August 22-27