In this article from Skye Heaton-Heather explores ‘How To Hold Your Breath’ by Zinnie Harris which was performed at the Royal Court Theatre between the Fourth of February and Twenty-First of May.
With How To Hold Your Breath, The Royal Court’s Artistic Director, Vicky Featherstone, is continuing the theatre’s long-standing tradition of running provocative, contemporary pieces that challenge the ideas of the status quo. This is the very space that saw playwright and oscar winning screenwriter, John Osborne (Look Back In Anger, 1956), flourish in the mid-1950s, whilst also helping to bring about the much-needed abolition of theatre censorship in London’s Swinging Sixties.
Zinnie Harris’s dystopian odyssey through a post-financially collapsed Europe seems spookily relevant, and the core question of how human nature is changed in times of struggle powers the piece. These human traits are important to illuminate in today’s individualistic societies, yet the depth of the writing seems to only skim the surface of a topic about one’s baseline human principles, with Harris giving second-helpings of comedic lines that lighten the mood. Maxine Peake’s performance as Customer Relations expert, Dana, holds the piece together and stops it sprawling away from itself, as Dana and her pregnant sister, Jasmine, attempt to navigate the catastrophic task of travelling to a possible research facility without the financial aid of credit cards.
The opening scene begins in bed. Dana and a self-dubbed ‘demon’, misunderstand the sexual exchange that has just occurred and the ‘demon’, played by the impressive Michael Shaeffer, offers to pay for the night’s activities. Dana refuses, yet as the horrors of travelling through Europe without any well-stocked banks escalates, she finds her resolve weakened. The play explodes with emotion when Jasmine’s baby is jeopardised, and the situation requires hard cash for medical services.
At almost two hours without a break, and with an episodic structure that allows for much terrain to be covered, much can be said for How To Hold Your Breath. Throughout the journey, Dana encounters a librarian, who offers her self-help books for every eventuality in place of the more literary works of Dante, Milton and Goethe. This seems to cement the idea that a ‘quick-fix’ can be remedied almost instantly. A statement on our need for speed in our everyday lives, perhaps? The naturalist performances are all well played and Harris’s dialogue is sometimes snappy, but it feels as though too much is trying to be expressed. These studies on how we live our lives and what we take for granted unfortunately were never given enough room to spark a debate that could generate solutions to these real-life problems, and this left me wanting more.
The play leaves questions unanswered and loose-ends untied. However, perhaps all along Harris wanted these debates to continue after the curtain had fallen so that we, as spectators, can think about and appreciate that what we have is plentiful and that what we have, others risk their lives to taste.
Image by Dasha Stokoz – Flickr via Creative Commons