How to Hold Your Breath
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Maxine Peake holds Zinnie Harris's surreal allegorical psychodrama together in this unsympathetic production.
A truly titanic performance from Maxine Peake very nearly makes a success of Zinnie Harris’s new play, a surreal allegorical psychodrama that’s been given a monumentally unsympathetic production by Royal Court boss Vicky Featherstone.
Peake plays Dana, a woman (probably German) who: 1) sleeps with and falls for Jarron (Michael Shaeffer), an uptight, neurotic man who purports to be a demon and starts freaking out when Dana refuses to accept money for sex; 2) has an apparently catastrophic interview for a research post in Alexandria – her specialised subject being the boundary between commercial transactions and human relations – but gets offered a final interview anyway; 3) decides to go on a roadtrip to Alexandria with her pregnant sister Jasmin (Christine Bottomley), over the course of which Europe suffers a total collapse – possibly at the behest of Jarron – turning the pair into two of many refugees attempting to flee into Africa.
These are all great ideas for a play that prods intelligently at the global status quo, that questions where we’d be if white, Western male power collapsed. But are they great ideas for the same play? The trouble with Featherstone’s cold, brooding, two-hour production is that it smushes everything together to the point that the individual strands lose definition and intent.
Everything happens on the same junk-covered set, with no sense that Dana and Jasmin are actually travelling anywhere. Coupled with Dana’s hallucinogenic visitations from both Shaeffer’s increasingly agitated Jarron and Peter Forbes’s amusingly prissy, quasi-angelic librarian and Featherstone almost seems to be interpreting ‘How To Hold Your Breath’ as taking place in its protagonist’s head. But to what end? If none of it is really happening, the geopolitical stuff loses value, as does Jasmin, whose heartbreaking, ugly late monologue about her baby is one of the play’s stand-out moments. Clearly it is at least real on some level, but Featherstone muddies it enough to sap the play’s momentum, while the relentlessly dour tone squishes the considerable sparkle in Harris’s dialogue.
But she does draw great, naturalistic performances from her cast, first and foremost Peake, who effectively holds the whole thing together with sheer incandescent presence. Her Dana is a deeply feeling, charmingly wilful woman who remains unbowed by the gallons of shit life throws at her, effortlessly batting off Shaeffer’s needy, controlling, patriarchal demon and taking the collapse of Europe in her stride as she does what she needs to do to look after her sister. Where Featherstone seems determined to muddle the meaning, Peake provides a clear, emotional path through it – the story of a decent woman refusing to be broken by an indecent world.