Zinnie Harris returns to Edinburgh 2011 with The Wheel

This article is from 2011

Zinnie Harris returns to Edinburgh 2011 with The Wheel

Vicky Featherstone directs play exploring change, place and conflict

Acclaimed playwright Zinnie Harris returns to the Fringe with a new play about a woman forced to take a journey through a world in conflict. She talks about the genesis of the piece with Suzanne Black

‘I had this idea of a woman that walks right round the world and comes back to the beginning and then gets the opportunity to play her life again. That was my opening premise. If we were able to go back to the moment where you have a fork in the path, would you take the other path if you knew what the outcome was?’

For her latest play Zinnie Harris returns to the fold of the National Theatre of Scotland, for whom she adapted Strindberg as Julie in 2006. What started as the seed of an idea on a sleepless night three Edinburgh Fringes ago has grown, been workshopped and evolved in ‘a happy collaboration’ with its director (and the NTS’s Artistic Director) Vicky Featherstone. It uses a cast of Scottish actors she and Featherstone have worked with previously (with Catherine Walsh in the lead) and choreographer Christine Devaney.

Harris reveals that her journey in the creation of this piece started with a few key images, in particular the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s Richard II, in which King Richard banishes Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray from England. The action of the play begins with a similar banishment and follows the journey of a displaced woman (Walsh as Beatriz) shepherding a little girl on a quest to find her father. In the initial scene a wedding is torn asunder by war and the threat of foreign invaders, forcing Beatriz away from her homeland and to some very different places.

Under a changing political climate the characters go on a physical journey that accompanies the emotional changes in their lives:

‘They cross continents and go in and out of war zones on this almost unimaginable journey and as they go on it, because of the difficult things they see and experience, they start to change.’

Harris has reflected on the effects of war on the individual before in her trilogy of Solstice, Midwinter and Fall, and though this new play is unrelated she feels that examining the effects of the external world on the personal is a common theme in her work. In this particular case, the changes she is looking at relate to children, to how much they can be considered to be products of their environments and with whom the responsibility lies for their behaviour. The play goes back to the starting point of the journey of life – childhood – and addresses what happens when the journey strays from the path and children turn out ‘bad’.

‘As we all travel through our lives or journeys how do we cope with the influences that are coming and the experiences that are happening to us, and how do we remain intact, particularly with children. There’s a thing that we form children but then when they turn out bad we damn them for it. The question I suppose it poses is to what extent are we implicated in the outcome of children that do atrocities or do terrible things.’

When we get to the crux of the play the central question for Harris is ‘can those changes, particularly in the child, be prevented’. Although she is keen to stress that The Wheel is not a reaction to any specific real world event, it could be read as a rebuttal against the dismissal of talking/reading/writing about atrocities as somehow giving them publicity. Rather, it seems to align her work with a tradition of achieving understanding and progress through discourse, where the worst course of action would be to respond with silence.

To return to Shakespeare and the impassioned speech given by Mowbray on learning of his permanent banishment:

‘The language I have learn’d these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:

What is thy sentence then but speechless death
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?’
(Richard II, Act I, Scene III)

This suggests that for Mowbray (and possible Harris) exile from discourse is tantamount to death; ongoing interaction is the only route to take. By tracing events back to their origins we can learn from the past, even if, unlike Beatriz, we don’t get the chance to ‘have our time again’.

Traverse Theatre, 228 1404, 7–28 Aug (not 8, 15, 22), times vary, £17–£19 (£12–£13). Preview 6 Aug, £12 (£6).

The Wheel - in rehearsal

The Wheel

  • 4 stars

Directed by Vicky Featherstone. Beatriz and her sister Rosa are preparing for Rosa's wedding. Their world is turned upside down when the groom arrives, pitchfork rabble in tow, to occupy their farm. A lost little girl stumbles into their world, looking for her father. In a moment of determination, Beatrix takes the girl…