‘So what’s this about then?’ asked the friend who I’d enlisted to accompany me to the theatre. ‘Well… it’s got Maxine Peake…and I think it’s about sisters? And something to do with immigration?’
I must have read the description of the play on the Royal Court’s website five times in the week leading up to the performance. Truth was, I just couldn’t retain the information. I had absolutely no idea what the play was about.
Writing this now, I’m only marginally more confident.
At the centre of the play are two sisters, Dana and Jasmine, who live in Berlin. When the play opens, Dana has just slept with a man who may or may not be the devil and who may or may not have just cursed her for refusing payment for sex.
Somewhat predictably, it’s all downhill from there.
Fear of spoilers (and a lack of understanding) prevents me from giving too much more detail of the narrative itself, but the play touches on large and difficult subjects. To what extent is love (in all its forms) a transaction, and business a love affair? Is human nature essentially good or evil?
Playwright Zinnie Harris has built her career on collaborations with the Royal Court and the script delivers what you’d expect from the famously edgy theatre; it’s modern, bold and provocative, punctuated with well-oiled profanities. However, it manages to avoid feeling clichéd, partly because of the surreal nature of the plot, which is a synopsis writer’s nightmare, and partly because of Vicky Featherstone’s confident direction.
The central performances are strong. Maxine Peake is luminous as Dana; when she is onstage (which she is in almost every scene), it is almost impossible to look at anyone else. It is easy to believe that she is the love object of a celestial creature.
Michael Schaeffer is darkly magnetic as Jarron (although his opening scene was almost derailed by an audience member who, in response to a line referencing anal sex, let slip a loud ‘Ugh!’), but Peter Forbes’ Librarian is wonderful, popping up at the darkest moments to provide Dana with increasingly bizarre self-help books that mark the narrative journey. Humorous and tragic, their scenes together are the play’s best.
Christine Bottomley is convincing as Jasmine, although her performance sometimes lacks a little light and shade, meaning that the character’s emotional climax is a little less affecting than it has the potential to be. This uniformity is especially notable in her scenes with Peake, who commands the stage with the slightest sound or movement. Bottomley is at her best in lighter moments; she has an easy chemistry with Peake and natural comic timing that brings some much needed humour to the narrative.
I went to the third preview of the play, and therefore the performance can only be expected to get neater, the cues sharper, the characterisation stronger. It has the potential to be a very affecting, pertinent show. But if you’re expecting to understand it, don’t hold your breath.
How To Hold Your Breath is on at the Royal Court Theatre until 21 March.