How to Hold Your Breath
Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
Zinnie Harris’s How to Hold Your Breath is a perplexing play, but not necessarily in a bad way. With a shifting tone from comedy to horror, it takes you in different, unexpected directions so you never quite know where you are going or what is happening. It centres on Dana, a business studies academic who lives in Berlin with her sister Jasmine. It opens on a one-night stand where, in some funny exchanges, it emerges the man that Dana picked up mistook her for a prostitute. Claiming he only ever pays for sex, he becomes angry when his money is refused and storms out.
All seems straightforward enough but his parting claim that he is a powerful demon begins to fester and, worried by a strange mark on her chest, Dana begins to suspect she is indeed being tormented by a devil. Her refusal to accept 45 euros as payment for sex is mysteriously echoed in incidents where she has a chance to gain 45 euros – an opportunity she stubbornly refuses. As she sets off by train with her sister for a job interview in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, her life begins to unravel, seemingly as the victim of supernatural forces. On top of this, a librarian pops up in increasingly unlikely situations, offering “how to” self-help books to guide Dana through her various challenges.
Now in the realms of fantasy, the play appears to become a magical Faustian fable, yet still just about rooted in reality. However, Harris steers the play in another direction where reality fractures in a journey that increasingly becomes a nightmare. Society and the economy disintegrate around them as the women’s trip turns into a desperate bid to flee as illegal immigrants to safety in Africa.
A theme running through the play is the different kinds of transactions that underpin our lives. Dana’s specialist field is customer dynamics, understanding the psychology of transactions, and her failure to understand the relationship between her and her pick-up appears to be the catalyst for the disasters that follow. Harris puts it in the context of the current EU crisis, brought about by misjudged debt, and imagines the consequences of a complete collapse of Europe’s economies.
However, at the heart of the play is Dana’s own journey from a quiet, normal life working in Berlin to a woman driven to extreme measures by the suffering she later endures. Despite the bizarre and increasingly unreal situations that Dana finds herself in, Maxine Peake keeps the character grounded and believable with a gritty stubbornness as she struggles for survival. In a strong performance, Christine Bottomley takes Dana’s sister from sassy best friend to a creature broken by circumstance. Peter Forbes’ ever-helpful librarian injects humour as he offers increasingly absurd self-help books such as “How to Spot Danger and Know How to Deal with It” and “How to Catch up with the Times as They Change”.
Directed by Vicky Featherstone, this is an ambitious play that delights in perplexing the audience. Chloe Lamford’s set, which strips back layers and tips at angles, mirrors the collapse of Dana’s life and European society, with striking, memorable scenes enhanced by the shadows and effects of Paule Constable’s lighting. It is an unsettling experience, leaving you hoping for your own librarian with a “how to” book outside the theatre.
How To Hold Your Breath is currently playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 21 March 2015
For a different point of view see Stephen Collin’s review
If you have seen the production, we would value your comments. We have published both reviews to encourage discussion.