Harris' adaptation of Aeschylus' Oresteia is a modern parable about the pressures of familial responsibility
Zinnie Harris has long been recognised as one of Scotland's most enterprising theatre-makers: alongside a reputation for scripts that express a feminist sensibility and a willingness to confront brutal realities, she recently won the Critics Award for Scotland (best director) for a terse production of Caryl Churchill's A Number. Although both Rhinoceros and This Restless House are adaptations of classic scripts – from the absurdist Ionesco and ancient Athenian Aeschylus respectively – their tough subject matter and fierce theatricality fit with her original works. Yet taking on Aeschylus' Oresteia also speaks of her ambition, tackling the trilogy that stands at the beginning of western drama and establishes an argument for male dominance.
'I was drawn to it because of the breadth of canvas and the muscularity of the work,' she explains. Yet despite the gravity of Aeschylus' script, she can see her adaptation in the context of her own interests. 'For a long time, I have been drawn to stories where I can reconfigure, particularly around the female characters. So, in my original plays, it is putting women in more central roles, in everyman roles: when adapting the classics, taking the received notion of a character, such as Clytemnestra, who is maybe already evil. I felt that if we approached her as if she were a modern character we would have a different telling.'
Harris' revamp – first staged at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow last year – draws attention away from the son compelled to avenge his father's death by killing his mother towards his sister, Electra. All three plays in the trilogy (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides) are reworked in the four hour-plus This Restless House – The Eumenides most explicitly to a contemporary setting – while retaining a tragic chorus and grappling with the source material's preoccupations.
credit: Tim Morozzo
Harris continues: 'I didn't just want to say the chorus is too complicated but use it as one would for a contemporary play.' They are given a more active role, especially in the first play, while Harris realised that Aeschylus' use of the deus ex machina would not cut it: 'Having taken an audience all the way through this story with a modern sensibility, I couldn't just bring a God in to resolve the story. Aeschylus was making a point about democracy, but there are things to be said about the nature of forgiveness.' By identifying the resonant themes that have carried over from the ancient Athenian past, Harris re-energises this seminal myth by discovering contemporary parallels.
The Eumenides – female spirits who avenge matricide – are a case in point. 'If we saw someone being chased by them today, we would see it in a psychiatric context, internal demons,' she says. This insight led to her boldest move, setting the finale in a psychiatric unit. Through collaboration with director Dominic Hill, This Restless House becomes an immediate and modern parable about the pressures of familial responsibility.
Hill is a frequent Harris collaborator, and her awareness of his style allows her to explore the limits of scripted theatre. 'Dominic has been developing a thing with music – so I surprised him with the chorus singing a song, and he makes use of an ensemble feel that I admire – I knew which things he would run with: like me, he's not afraid of going to the dark place in a play,' laughs Harris. Hill's bold vision, which draws on the history of theatre and incorporates suggestive scenography, live music and Brechtian trickery without ever forgetting the importance of strong performances from the actors, has set the pace for Scottish directors over the past decade. And in This Restless House, Harris and Hill make a startling statement of intent, that they are not afraid to take on the classics.
Despite the show's critical success – Pauline Knowles' Clytemnestra was universally praised, the script was celebrated for its intelligence and Hill's trademark directorial style added to the sense of occasion – Harris admits that she was sad when the run at the Citizens ended, and is excited about its second life as part of the EIF. While the 'Scottish slot' at the International Festival is often jokingly referred to as 'cursed', the decision to programme a show that has already proved its pedigree will go a long way to removing that stigma. This Restless House is a work that rewards repeated viewing, and opens up conversations about the tensions hidden in the family home, the power of men over women and the possibility of reworking the classic Greek tragedies to make them relevant without losing their historical resonance.
Oresteia: This Restless House, Lyceum, 23–27 Aug, 6pm, £10–£32. Preview 22 Aug, £7.50–£23. Meet Me At Dawn, Traverse, until 27 Aug (not 21), £21.50 (£16.50).
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