"The world is changing at a rate of knots"

Orla O'Loughlin and Zinnie Harris talk to Theo Bosanquet about the political undercurrents in Meet Me at Dawn, a co-production between the Traverse and EIF

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Meet Me at Dawn
Published 22 Jul 2017

"It's simply one of the best plays I've ever read," says Traverse artistic director Orla O'Loughlin of Zinnie Harris's Meet Me at Dawn, recalling her first reading of the piece. "I remember feeling emotionally and intellectually overwhelmed by it. It's Shakespearean both in its landscape and its poetry."

The play, which O'Loughlin is directing as a co-production between the Traverse and the Edinburgh Internationion Festival (EIF), features two women who wash up on an unfamiliar shore following a boating accident. Harris's starting point was the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, in which Orpheus descends to Hades to visit his beloved late wife. 

Meet Me at Dawn is one of three projects Harris has written for this year's EIF, alongside new versions of the Oresteia and Ionesco's Rhinoceros. How does it feel to be given such prominence in the festival's 70th anniversary programme? "It's extraordinary," says Harris. "I feel very honoured and overwhelmed. I'm particularly pleased the plays all showcase different aspects of my work." 

There is a political undercurrent to all three plays; notably, the aftermath of last summer's Brexit referendum. Harris makes an explicit connection between her feelings after the vote and the grieving process explored in Meet Me at Dawn. "I remember spending days thinking, 'Surely it cannot be'. I think that's a natural reaction when the world suddenly shifts. The psyche has difficulty accepting the new universe; it rails against it."

O'Loughlin also attests to sensing a feeling of "collective loss" regarding Brexit, especially in Scotland. Has the political climate shaped her Traverse programme more widely? "Our theme this year is one of representation but also challenging the status quo and a new world order that is frankly very dangerous," she says. "The world is changing at a rate of knots, and I think there's a need for us to gather and celebrate what unifies us."

Diversity is at the heart of the programme, which includes two transgender monologues from the National Theatre of Scotland (Adam and Eve). Five of the 16 productions at the Traverse are homegrown, a record for the venue. And as well as its creative output, O'Loughlin also wants to emphasise the venue's function as an "unofficial green room" of the festival. "One of the things I love about this building is that we don't have a stage door. There's a democracy around the bar area, where you'll find directors, actors and stage managers mingling with audiences. All sorts of conversations are taking place here."

To reflect this she has worked a series of post-show discussions into the programme in order to offer a "safe space" for debate. Locker Room Talk, based on Donald Trump's infamous defence of his secretly recorded misogynist 'banter', is split 50/50 between verbatim theatre and audience discussion.

Harris points out that people are struggling with acceptance. She says part of her aim in writing Meet Me at Dawn was to explore "how we accept the new and let go of the past". The fact it features two women who are in love (played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Neve McIntosh) seems an important aspect of this.

Based on her feelings for the play, O'Loughlin is cautious of getting carried away. "Someone very wise once told me, 'You're not going to do your best work on a play you love'. I must be mindful of this and sharpen my more objective view. It feels like looking after your own baby; why would you want to change something so perfect?"

I'm curious to know what both are looking forward to seeing at the festival more widely this year. O'Loughlin admits she's been so busy preparing the Traverse programme she has barely had time to look. One thing that has made her radar is Blak Whyte Gray, a hip-hop dance piece she glimpsed at the EIF launch. Harris mentions PJ Harvey. 

Both choices emphasise the breadth of entertainment on offer across Edinburgh in August. But O'Loughlin, who has been with the Traverse since 2012, is keen to point out that it's perfectly possible to have an enriching festival at her venue alone. "Our programme runs from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. There's no need to be anywhere else!"