Zinnie Harris: There's momentum behind Scottish theatre at the moment

As she faces a three-show August, the playwright and director Zinnie Harris explains what sparked ”Meet Me at Dawn” and why writers should be careful in rehearsal rooms

Zinnie Harris
Zinnie Harris
© Susan Torkington

Has having three shows on in Edinburgh over August felt like a juggling act?
It has yes, but it’s not just the shows being on. It’s the process of supporting them. You want to have a rehearsal presence, but also you need to think about the programme notes, proofs for the playtext, interviews, going out with the cast, talking with directors.

The festivals have started, has it slowed down a bit?
Not really! I have an adaptation of The Master Builder for West Yorkshire Playhouse coming up – the first day of rehearsals is 20 August, so it’s not going to calm down for a while. But a lot of this work I was doing over a year ago. Although I have booked a holiday – I’m definitely going away in September.

You have a brand new play – Meet Me At Dawn – running at the Traverse about grief. What sparked that?
I think there was a moment after the Brexit vote, but also when my 20-year marriage came to an end, where I felt I was in a grieving process. I think the country was as well. All those stages of grief – anger, denial, bargaining – are still happening. The play explores a love relationship that comes to an end and the specificity of that.

It has two characters washed up unexpectedly on an unknown shore, is that right?
Yes, it is a two-hander, it is sort of a response to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and the finality of death. How when you’re lost in grief, what you’re searching for is one final conversation.

You have three pieces opening all very close to each other – does that make you more nervous than normal?
They are different experiences. I’m not nervous about it but intrigued by what the audience brings. Theatre is an experiment and it’s only with the addition of the audience that you can see whether it has risen.

Your adaptation of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is staged by a Turkish company – how did that collaboration come about?
DOT have done a lot of my work in Turkey. I have been to Turkey maybe four times in the last two years for projects with the Royal Court and the British Council. I became very friendly with this theatre company so when the opportunity came up at the Lyceum we started talking about it. It’s been interesting because Ionesco was Romanian, writing in French. I’ve done an English version of the play which then got translated into Turkish. In the rehearsal room we had a cast of seven Scottish actors, two Turkish actors, two associate directors, a Turkish director and Scottish stage management team and British designer. It’s a proper cross-cultural thing. I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a happier company.

This Restless House
This Restless House
© Tim Morozzo

This Restless House opens next week at the EIF. It’s an adaptation of The Oresteia, but it’s won an award for best new play – so it’s a total reimagining?
It is yes. The first part uses the base of Aeschylus’ story but it sees it from Clytemnestra’s point of view. I think in classic work often we’re not really invited to understand the motivations or psychology of women. Lady Macbeth suffers from that too. Clytemnestra has had to live through the ritual sacrifice of her daughter, then her husband buggers off to fight a war for ten years and comes back and expects to walk straight back into her bed. I just thought there’s a different take on this woman. I think Dominic Hill’s production is absolutely stunning.

Do you think it will come south?
I’m crossing my fingers that this will be seen more widely but there are no plans as yet.

Do you think there is still a bit of a north-south divide when it comes to Scottish theatre?
I think less so. Scottish theatre is in such a thriving place at the moment, there’s amazing work going on here and with David Grieg at the Lyceum and Dominic Hill at the Citz and the National Theatre of Scotland. There is momentum.

You are a director too – do you find that helps when you’re writing?
I just think I’m a theatre animal, I love being in the rehearsal room. I do think when you’re a writer you have to be careful. When I was directing A Number, which I was really proud of, I don’t think I could have done that it if I had had Caryl Churchill sitting in rehearsals. All my energy would have been on wondering what’s she thinking. Everybody needs the freedom to be playful and that can be quite uncomfortable for writers if they are not used to it.

You live in Edinburgh – do you find the city hard to live in when August hits ?
No I love it. I often feel I write my best stuff in the autumn because I’ve been really engaged. It’s so inspiring and stimulating. Even if you go and see a load of things that are 75 per cent right there’s something about the dialogue between theatre and culture. Also my kids go back to school on 17 August, so it’s a dual existence for me.

Meet Me At Dawn runs at the Traverse Theatre until 27 August. This Restless House runs from 22 to 27 August at the Lyceum.

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