How To Hold Your Breath (Zinne Harris) @ The Royal Court Theatre, London 9th February 2015.

‘The Miseducation Of Dana’

With each breathe, fervour outburst of spittle and even dust visible and tangible, the Royal Court setting allows one of the most intimate, up close theatre experiences you’re ever likely to witness. Put the inimitable – arguably one of the greatest and rawest talents of her generation – earnest Maxine Peake at the centre of a two hour play, and you find yourself privy to a most mesmerising performance, even if the opening scene of Peake’s Dana character canoodling post-coital with, what might be a metrosexual Mephistopheles, Jarron (Michael Shaffer) makes you feel like an eavesdropper or voyeur. This initial spark and as it proves twist of fate, leads to a series of ever-more harrowing episodes, the principle characters including Dana’s sympathetic older sibling Jasmine (Christine Bottemley) embarking on a journey across Central Europe during a rapidly escalating financial disaster.

Come “hell” or high water, the much – almost ruinously – tested character of Dana navigates a bankrupted Europe teetering and then progressively pushed over into a modern version of Candide; one that negates the “best of all possible worlds” optimism of the omnipresent Professor Pangloss. Leaden at times with metaphors – and if ever in doubt as to the theme’s subtexts, there’s a constant stream of references from the mysterious librarian’s ever-ready trolley of book titles and authors – with even the stage moving in tandem with the literal “earthquake” seismic events, How To Hold Your Breath offers a glimpse into a world turned upside down; a role-reversal of the present day migration and escape from North Africa to Europe and beyond, the promised land in this scenario the ancient seat of wisdom; a city graced with one of the original seven wonders; once home to the greatest library in the known world; Alexandria. Our close sisters set out on a course of action but find themselves suffering the sins and turmoils of the venture capitalist, shareholder, bankers and digital tech companies brave new world; in limbo, marooned in a insignificant German city, 1000 miles from their destination.

Despite the often Dystopian, dog-eat-dog scenes of despair – including an all too painful and shook by the lapels performance later in the play by the grieving Jasmine – Zinne Harris’ play has its tender and warmer moments, notably in the knockabout banter and expletive riddled ribbing of the two sisters dialogue. Dark but humorous, even the relationship between the demonic protagonist Jarron and Dana can at times prove candidly witty. Assiduous throughout, the sequence of events moving along at a good pace; props and sets bare but ample for the progressively crumbling scenery that reflects the decay and rapid breakdown of society; Harris’ script is handled with economy and a spirit of experimentation – the ferry crossing stage plunge into an abyss, a striking example, the supporting cast disappearing beneath the floor to their fate.

Portrayed and almost ridiculed for her supposed vulnerability and naivety the surly northern lass Dana is often far stronger in courage, emotion and humble then the plot demands; a prejudice of mine no doubt, used to seeing Peake play some of the strongest roles; her usual fare of characters knuckling down and eventually rising above all those who surround her. A break from the usual casting perhaps, she nevertheless plays a gritty tormented soul who only a through supernatural circumstances beyond her control, has her will broken, as she carries around a an indelible mark left by the arsehole Jarron – another literal marker, the scars never healing and rottenness seeping out.

On a near peerless form of late, off the back of a successful role as Hamlet on the stage and as the maternal, love-trapped heroine of The Village last year on the BBC, Peake holds every scene, even when demoted to arched, resilient or suspenseful face pulling in the background as the rest of the cast take centre stage. However, everyone is on form and naturally at ease, without any minor missteps or mistakes – well visible to an admittedly novice theatre goer like myself. The zeitgeist is long over, and the abundance of recession/depression themed plays probably starting to run out of originality, Harris has though put a certain “slant” on the post-banking crisis, adding something relatively fresh to the dark days that still cast a shadow over our future.

Words: Dominic Valvona

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