REVIEW: How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court ✭✭

Maxine Peake and Peter Forbes in How To Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Maxine Peake and Peter Forbes in How To Hold Your Breath. Photo: Manuel Harlan

How To Hold Your Breath
Royal Court
24 February 2015
2 Stars

In more naive and simpler times, the catch-cry in Superman comics and the early filmed versions of the adventures of the man from Krypton always revolved around the “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!” questions. The crowd could see what was in front of their eyes, but had trouble identifying it. Something like that tantalising/irritating experience is now playing out at the Royal Court, where Zinnie Harris’ new play, How To Hold Your Breath, is having its premiere season.

Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? Is it a farce? Is it a parable? Is it an allegory? Is it a melodrama? Is it a pantomime? Is it poetic? Is it naturalistic? Is it surreal? Is it all of these things? Or none of these things? The sum of its parts, greater than the sum or less than the sum? Is it something? Or nothing?

After 110 minutes, there are only two things about which one can be sure: How To Hold Your Breath is very long: and Zinnie Harris is not Superman (or woman).

The play starts in a reasonably naturalistic setting and seems to involve the aftermath of a random sexual encounter between man and woman. But it is quickly clear that whatever this is, it is far from natural. The first clue comes when the man offers to pay the woman for the encounter. She reacts badly, and not only or because he offers only €45.

He says he is a demon, a devil, a thunderclap, that his sperm is black. He insists she take the money; she resolutely refuses. She kicks him out then discovers a strange red welt or mark on her torso, the red heat from it hurting her. She has a job interview to attend and, thus, her journey begins.

It’s a bizarre journey in every way. She finds herself encountering a weird librarian who has a penchant for offering her “How to” books; he also instigates the first of a number of instances where she is offered, directly or indirectly, €45. She refuses, as she always does, and the librarian, no stranger to demons himself, it turns out, warns of impending tragedy.

There turns out to be a lot of that: banks go bust, the European Union collapses, anarchy and civil strife rises up, the sister loses her baby, they flee the wasteland that Europe has become, and its lost, frantic and uncivil inhabitants, board an overcrowded vessel which gets into difficulty on the way to Africa and then die. Or maybe only one of them does. It’s not clear. But, it seems that even in death, or within death’s reach, job interviews are still on the cards. And soliloquies full of passion. And librarians offering still more self-help books with garish titles such as “How to Stop Gagging with Someone’s Putrid Penis in Your Mouth”.

But what does it all mean? Does it mean anything?

Is this a state of Europe piece or a state of modern society piece or something like that? Is it a series of vignettes which depict aspects of modern life but in a mostly disconnected, jarring way – thereby reflecting the disconnected, jarring way modern life lurches? Is it a kind of tapestry, with snatches of observations or portents about the near future to make us think?

Or is it just a badly conceived hotchpotch of omens and “truths”? Big business is the devil; Banks are evil and will destroy society; Politics is evil and will lead to the end of civilisation; modern society can’t help itself; the concepts of tribe and benevolence have been lost, replaced by dogged self-interest; there is no hope for the future; standing by your principles will lead to your destruction.

Harris’ use of language throughout is inconsistent and odd. Sections which sound like they should be funny just don’t work. There is frequent use of language obviously meant to shock or appear edgy (“I still ended up with my cock up your arse) but it simply jars and seems trite. Especially given that towards the end of the piece Harris manages some passages of great and complex beauty.

Nothing about the way Vicky Featherstone directs proceedings sheds any light on what the play is meant to achieve, the thinking it seeks to inspire. Chloe Lamford provides a curiously banal, but dystopian set, cluttered with items representational of the disposable nature of the consumer age and with a series of flying, framed backdrops as the centrepiece, each backdrop suggesting a different place.

At times, the pace seems funereal, a feeling accentuated by the lack of coherent purpose in the writing. It is almost as if someone involved, perhaps everyone, thought that slow equals profound. It doesn’t.

Still, there is Maxine Peake, a skilled and sensitive actress who does everything possible to breathe life into her character, Dana, and the weird journey she takes. Peake is a joy to watch and listen to; she has several marvellous speeches, full of passion and energy, her classical skills to the fore. As this played out, and her considerable skills were frittered away on inadequate material, it was impossible not to yearn to see her in a play that was as captivating as she could be.

Dana is meant to be in her late twenties and Peake, especially in the opening scenes, deftly portrayed that sense of fiery youthfulness. As the journey got darker, her Dana aged and matured. It’s a well calibrated performance that seeks to get every ounce of interest from every scene and which tries to tie the piece together coherently.

There was good work from Peter Forbes as the mysterious Librarian and Christine Bottemley as Jasmine, Dana’s younger sister. Michael Shaeffer lacked any sort of charm as Jarron, the demon of black sperm fame, but this might have been a deliberate choice – a way to represent the gauche and cold and unappealing aspects of big business.

The scene where the two sisters are trapped on the overcrowded boat full of refugees escaping the collapsed Europe was chilling – it stood out from the eclectic and discombobulating potpourri around it.

The programme/playscript states:

Starting with a seemingly innocent one-night stand, this dark, witty and magical play by Zinnie Harris dives into our recent European history. An epic look at the true cost of principles and how we live now.

Dark – tick.

Witty? Magical? Epic?

Don’t hold your breath.

For a different point of view see Mark Ludmon’s review

If you have seen the production, we would value your comments. We have published both reviews to encourage discussion.

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