How to Hold Your Breath feels like two plays smashed together. What happens when you sleep with the devil? What do you do if Europe suddenly crashes and you are now the unwanted immigrant trying to get to Africa for a better life?
Either one of those concepts could have made a powerful play but combining them together made for a somewhat baffling two hours. Running with no interval, the descent into darkness was relentless and confusing.
Maxine Peake (Dana) has a magnetic stage presence. She slides around the stage effortlessly owning each scene. But who is her character supposed to be? Is she a spurned lover? Is she mad – is the Devil real? Is she supposed to be making us think about the shallowness of modern society with her specialist knowledge on ‘customer magnetics’? Is she a desperate economic migrant?
Peake is supported by a strong cast who do their best with language that can be very didactic at times. There are some nice comic touches including the librarian who keeps turning up with a self-help book for almost every modern-day ailment. The relationship between Dana and her sister is touchingly portrayed.
Yet playwright Zinne Harris does not resolve the questions raised in her play. It’s never made clear whether the catastrophe was inevitable or whether the Devil caused it.
There are many uncomfortable ideas fighting for space in this play without a clear story. If it is interpreted as Dana’s dream or nightmare then the lack of narrative drive does not matter so much as dreams have a shapeshifting logic all of their own.
Futhermore, if the Royal Court wasn’t putting on confusing and bizarre plays then it wouldn’t be doing its job correctly.