How To Hold Your Breath Brings Home Crisis To Europe

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 50 months ago
How To Hold Your Breath Brings Home Crisis To Europe ★★★★☆ 4

Maxine Peake (Dana) and Michael Shaeffer (Jarron). Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

Zinnie Harris’s new magic realist work is a breathtakingly broad-themed and fast-moving vision of First World crisis. Not so much a state-of-the-nation as a state-of-the-continent play, How to Hold Your Breath envisages a nightmarish scenario where Europe is in economic and social meltdown, as banks close and people fight each other for limited resources as well as to escape beyond its now sealed borders. This may seem far-fetched, but with the severe debt crisis in Southern European countries, and the frighteningly unstable future that Greece in particular faces, the zeitgeist is now one of deep uncertainty rather than complacency.

The play begins naturalistically and comically with a one-night stand between the independent Dana and Jarron, a man she has picked up in a bar who works for the UN. But after she refuses to take any money from him, he angrily proclaims he has devilish powers and threatens that soon she will be begging him for help. The tone becomes fantastical as she notices a big red mark that looks like much more than a love bite on her neck and consults a pedantic but helpful librarian for books about demons. And then as she travels across Europe by train with her pregnant sister Jasmine for a job interview in Alexandria, the dreamlike mood turns into nightmare.

The play may take the form of an allegorical journey with Faustian overtones, but the bumpy ride is exhilaratingly unpredictable with real contemporary resonance. Harris is not only tapping into the feeling of insecurity that many in Europe now feel, but inverting the normal North–South situation where we give aid to far-away crisis-torn countries, in order to bring home the shocking reality, which includes terrible tragedies like the 300 boat refugees reported drowned in the Mediterranean today. Our materialistic society’s usual self-obsessed concerns with lifestyle choices are shown to be trivial in comparison, while it is suggested that the United Nations’ and other international organizations’ relief efforts are by no means necessarily a force for the good when poorer countries become dependent on the rich capitalist nations.

Vicky Featherstone’s free-flowing production and Chloe Lamford’s consumer product-filled design, with the floor unnervingly rising up in one corner, uses the full depth and height of the Royal Court’s stage to great effect. On stage throughout, Maxine Peake gives a compellingly dynamic performance as Dana, moving from chirpy self-confidence to desperate anxiety, sharing a touchingly candid relationship with Christine Bottomley’s more pragmatic, supportive Jasmine. Michael Shaeffer’s diabolical Jarron, afraid of being humanized, uses financial transactions to replace any emotional commitment, while Peter Forbes’s delightfully droll librarian is a well-meaning but ineffective guardian angel whose armfuls of ‘how to’ self-help books cannot prevent looming disaster.

How to Hold Your Breath is on at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs until 21 March. Tickets are £10–£32. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 11 February 2015