How to Hold Your Breath

Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London

Zinnie Harris is one of our most original, exciting dramatists. Her latest, How to Hold Your Breath doesn’t entirely succeed but is almost breathtaking in its ambition. An attempt to present the possible collapse of modern 21st century European life in terms of a grand metaphor, it ends in an image all too recognisable from the front pages – illegal immigrants failing to survive a sinking ship. Slipping and sliding down Chloe Lamford’s raised platform, it’s one that also powerfully recalls echoes of the Final Judgement.

Despite the potency of this and Vicky Featherstone’s visionary production, How to Hold Your Breath is not an easy ride.

Running in at just under two hours without interval, Harris’ writing is a combination of the banal and the inspired invested with a kind of magical realism. Led by Maxine Peake (still sporting a cropped hairstyle from her recent acclaimed Hamlet), she plays Dana, a sexually adventurous young woman living in an unspecified European capital with her sister, Jasmin. The play’s main problem arises from the mysterious intention behind Harris’s main male protagonist, Jarron, at once demon and devil.

Who or what does he represent? Capitalism? Patriarchy? For Harris’ central theme, links love, sex, money and by stages, prostitution in a life-engulfing punishment inflicted upon Dana by `the devil’ to teach her a lesson for making him try to fall in love with her.

As if this mixture of realism and magic weren’t confusing enough, into the mix Harris throws consumerism and material success in a picaresque adventure – or series of misadventures – culminating in the vision of western society on the edge of the apocalypse.

Dana’s only means of support through this, apart from her own naive optimism, comes from a friendly librarian giving Harris the opportunity to throw in some wonderfully sly digs about the ultimate uselessness of self-help and populist `How-to-do’ tomes.

Add to that a coruscating account from Jasmin on the loss of her unborn child and you have a drama that for all its dips emerges as a heartfelt warning about the fragility of `civilised’ life. The slip through the crack could be just another austerity drive away.

First published in Reviewsgate Feb 2015