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How To Hold Your Breath

Published 11 February 2015

What’s it all about?

“Nothing ever really bad happens in Europe,” one sister tells another in Zinnie Harris’ nightmarish fantasy How To Hold Your Breath. In little more than a few explosive minutes, this is proved unequivocally false as the banks close their doors, hospitals demand cash in exchange for aid and former female lawyers and primary school teachers scout out territory for a whole new line of work.

And what’s the cause of all this disorder? Harris’ satirical piece might just have you debating that for days, but on a literal basis it’s all the fault of academic Dana’s refusal to take payment for her services following a one-night stand with a demon. We’ve all been there.

Refusing to give in to his demands, she embarks on a (mis)adventure with her sister Jasmine across a collapsing Europe in an attempt to cross to safety and the promise of a job in Africa.

Who’s in it?

Theatre fans will already know the answer to this as the inimitable Maxine Peake returns to the stage following her triumphant turn as Hamlet to lead as Dana. Her performance fulfils every clichéd promise you’ve heard about the quite brilliant actor; she is indeed magnetic and watching her play the frenzied character is often heart-poundingly exhilarating. Harris’ weighty script requires her to snap between youthful flirtation and wide-eyed horror, and she radiates energy with every character twist and turn.

Vicky Featherstone’s production comes complete with fine support from Christine Bottomley, who gives an emotionally demanding performance as her long-suffering sister, and a suitably devilish Michael Shaeffer as the tortured demon with a penchant for expensive suits.

What should I look out for?

A witty performance from Peter Forbes as a librarian with more than a passing interest in creatures of the underworld – no relation to Rupert Giles – and a helpful collection of books catered for every possible, niche eventuality; How To Look Like You’re Enjoying Yourself While Your Skin Is Repelled, How To Get To Sleep Despite The Extreme Heat etc etc.

In a nutshell?

Maxine Peake will leave you breathless in Zinnie Harris’ strange and wonderful fantasy set in an off-kilter world not so different from our very own.

What’s being said on Twitter?

@StephensSimon There are some plays which have moments in that, in a totally thrilling way, you wish you’d written. How To Hold Your Breath had handfuls.

@jackthorne There’s a 10 min section in #HowToHoldYourBreath @royalcourt where I didn’t breathe & @ChrissyBotto’s glassy eyed stare pulled my guts up.

Will I like it?

In truth, this show won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But that’s the brilliant thing about the Royal Court; its fearless programming takes risks and stages challenging, divisive pieces of work that will leave you reeling and full of questions. How To Hold Your Breath is no exception, and if you like your drama delivered with a creative, witty, intelligent and political punch – with the exceptional Peake as a bonus, of course – this show’s surreal, dark vision is likely to  dazzle.

How To Hold Your Breath is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 21 March. You can book tickets through the theatre’s website.


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