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The Theatreguide.London Review

How To Hold Your Breath
Royal Court Theatre  February-March 2015

An early contender for Best Play Of The Year, Zinnie Harris's new play is a sprawling epic and a taut psychological drama, a realistic social analysis and a supernatural fable, a nightmarish study of a civilisation in meltdown and the nightmare of a mind and soul in collapse. 

Harris sustains those multiple levels and ways of experiencing the play far longer than you'd think likely, keeping you engrossed not just in solving its puzzles but in a very human and emotional involvement with the story and characters. 

Dana (Maxine Peake) is a young academic who has a one-night stand with an attractive man she meets at a bar. A morning-after spat climaxes in his announcing that he is a demon and putting a curse on her. 

Bear with me – there's one more leap of faith you're going to have to make. Coincidentally, European banks choose this moment to undergo a crisis even worse than that of a few years ago, leading to a total meltdown. Economies crumble, national political structures waver, law and order disappear, and within days there is panic-in-the-streets anarchy. 

And Dana experiences all this as the working-out of the demon's curse. 

She's not totally mad – or at least that's not the whole answer – because there are too many specific coincidences that tie the larger chaos to her own story, the demon lover reappears to remind her of his anger, and a mysterious librarian seems to follow her around, offering her How-To books to meet each new crisis she encounters.

Is Dana a paranoid egotist seeing all of life's events as tied to her, or is the demon's curse working itself out on a very large scale? Is the nightmarish quality of her experience a projection of her delusion or has the objective reality of a complete social collapse taken on a dream-like illogic? 

Actually, is it an either-or choice or all of the above? Real life does sometimes feel hallucinogenic. We are sometimes prone to view reality through the distorting prism of our own psychology. And sometimes supernatural intervention, for good or evil, does seem the most believable explanation for experience. 

The power of Harris's play comes from the fact that she doesn't allow us to choose among explanations, but guides us to feel the attractiveness – and humanness – of all of them. 

Dramatically the play and Vicky Featherstone's direction make us believe and relate to Dana and to the play on all their levels simultaneously, leading to an intense and thoroughly satisfying immersion in the two-hour theatrical experience.

(Indeed, the only real criticism to make of the play, apart from its demand that you accept the opening premises, is that very occasionally playwright or director briefly loses that multi-vision by focusing too long on one level or another.) 

Onstage continuously, Maxine Peake ably carries the weight of the play, keeping Dana sympathetic and believable even when we are tempted to dismiss her as deluded, and always keeping us aware of the very human experience of one trying to make sense out of chaos. 

Michael Shaeffer is appropriately ominous and ambiguous as the lover, Peter Forbes sustains an air of both eeriness and benevolence as the mystical librarian, and Christine Bottomley is touching as the fragile sister caught up in Dana's adventure. 

Vicky Featherstone's direction sensitively navigates all the play's ambiguities without ever letting it slip into just a what's-going-on mystery, and the stage construction and design by Chloe Lamford contribute significantly to the hallucinatory impression of the line between solid reality and delusion breaking down.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - How To Hold Your Breath  - Royal Court Theatre 2015  
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