Monday, 16 February 2015

Theatre review: How To Hold Your Breath

Vicky Featherstone has had a rather unusual tendency since taking over the Royal Court, of matching other directors with scripts they can make a lot out of, while keeping some decidedly dodgy ones for herself. It's a trend that continues with her latest directorial effort, a take on the financial crisis and the future of Europe... at least maybe that's what it is? In Zinnie Harris' How To Hold Your Breath, Dana (Maxine Peake) is about to apply for a research post at an Egyptian university, but a couple of weeks beforehand she has a fateful one-night stand: She sleeps with a man who's mistaken her for a prostitute and when, the next morning, he realises his mistake, insists on paying her anyway. Dana refuses to take his money, but Jarron (Michael Shaeffer) turns out to be a demon, and much like a Lannister, a demon always pays his debts.

Accompanied by her irritating, pregnant sister (Christine Bottomley) and followed by a mysterious librarian (Peter Forbes) with a neverending supply of highly specific how-to books, Dana takes a train across Europe, aiming to get to Alexandria via Turkey, all the time trying to avoid accepting the €45 Jarron says he owes her.

With the awkward comedy of the opening encounter, and the suggestion of a supernatural thriller with an inadvertent deal with the devil, How To Hold Your Breath starts promisingly enough, but as it gets to the meat of the play it gets increasingly muddied and outright dull. The structure has a hint of Sarah Kane's Blasted in the way it opens in comfort and heads towards the apocalyptic while piling on the indignities on the main character - and whatever else you say about the play, it's lucked out in its leading lady, Peake watchable and engaging as ever.

But as the story takes in a new and final banking crash that turns Europe into the third world, the writing becomes hopelessly dense - trying to negotiate your way through the various layers of metaphor is like wading through treacle. Chloe Lamford's design, dominated by increasingly ragged advertising hoardings, is striking; but with final scenes that look like a cross between Titanic and a zombie apocalypse, it only adds to the mixed metaphors. (Also the trousers she's put Peake in are such a horrible cut it's downright distracting. See, I do notice costumes sometimes.)

Christopher - who also had a major issue with the show's perceived message that, if you refuse to prostitute yourself, the penalty will be having to prostitute yourself - nominated this as a potential Fram of the Year. Having been at the original Fram with me he should know, but I'm not sure, and not only because I'm a pessimist who assumes there's worse to come. How To Hold Your Breath clearly has ambitions beyond simply boring audiences, it's just a long way from realising them.

How To Hold Your Breath by Zinnie Harris is booking until the 21st of March at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours straight through.

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