Reinventing stage heroines

Professor Zinnie Harris’ new plays and her adaptations of canonical drama provide exciting contemporary roles for women.

Clytemnestra being killed

As Zinnie comments:

"British theatre has a wonderful canon of plays, but with few main roles for women. We have inherited plays by writers who consistently put men at the centre of their stories so women are under-represented on stage. Where we do see women at the centre of modern plays, the story is often restricted to being about something that only concerns women. I wanted to create roles for women as the everyman character who can speak for us all without being emblematic of one gender only, or defined by her romantic relationships."

Zinnie has adapted plays by Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Eugène Ionesco and her Meet me at Dawn was inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Her work has won numerous awards and been translated into languages including German, French, Swedish, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese.

In 2015, Zinnie’s How to hold your breath (winner of the Berwin Lee award for playwriting) was premiered; responding to Bertolt Brecht’s The good person of Szechwan, it uses the central female character to explore how we can retain morality in a corrupt world.

Her trilogy This Restless House (2016; Best New Play Award, Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland) was a reworking of Aeschylus’ Oresteia that centralised the characters Clytemnestra and her daughter Electra. Most recently, Zinnie has adapted John Webster’s iconic Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi for the Edinburgh Lyceum.

Zinnie Harris’ plays have created substantial roles for women actors and have been an important factor in recent efforts to address the gender imbalance still found in theatre across the world. Since 2015, Harris’ plays have been seen by audiences in 10 countries including the UK, Italy, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden and Turkey. This global legacy has provoked debate about women’s representation in theatre, influenced the programming practice of multiple major theatres and profoundly influenced British, Turkish, Kurdish and Iranian playwriting about women. Her plays have addressed vital contemporary issues including the #MeToo movement and refugee crises, and they have provided leading roles for women actors in their thirties and forties, at a time when professional opportunities for women actors often start to thin.

The influence of Harris’ work is apparent in the fact five plays by Harris formed the core of the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival drama programme – a featuring of a diverse range of work by a female playwright unprecedented in the Festival’s history – and in 2019, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre’s decision to programme an entire season of plays by women was directly inspired by Harris’s work.