How To Hold Your Breath

At The Royal Court, 27 February 2015

So it’s now two days since I saw How To Hold Your Breath, and to be honest, I’m still trying to decide what it was all about. It is certainly an ambitious piece of work; so ambitious that after sitting through it for nearly two hours, I then spent my tube journey home thinking about it, followed by a 90 minute drive down to Kent still discussing it, waking up the following morning trying to work it out further, and since then going online to read how others have interrupted it all.

Is this a problem or a criticism though? Of course not, because the one thing I was sure about was that on Friday evening at about 9.30pm as the play finished, I knew I had spent two hours enjoying what was in front of me. The questions I had were simply “why did I enjoy it?” and “what the hell did that all just mean?”

“Why” is the simple question. Great performances, witty dialogue and thought provoking. Maxine Peake as Dana dominates the stage, but is well supported from all sides, especially with the Liberian who has the best lines of them all. All the ingredients are there to pass two hours in confused enjoyment. The meaning though, well, that is much more complicated.

A few minutes into the play, and the idea behind the play seemed so obvious. Girl chats up man and invites him back for the night. The next morning he tries to pay her, assuming she was a prostitute because “girls don’t just come on to me like that normally”. When she takes offence and refuses payment, he turns nasty, declares himself as a demon, that he will not be in her debt and she will regret this so much that she will be begging to take the money within two weeks.

It’s a brilliant opening scene, seemingly setting the story up perfectly as Dana soon discovers a mark on her body that is questionable, and has a disastrous interview, all adding to her belief that maybe she has been cursed by a demon. She even visits the local library to try to research this with the aid of a very amicable librarian who offers advice along the way by suggesting suitable books, the titles of which get more and more direct as things progress.

So at this point, it seems the play is about this, her struggles against a curse, perceived or not, and how she deals with this, first defiance but slowly turning to desperation. Great, except it really isn’t this simple. As Dana finds herself travelling through Europe trying to get to Alexandria, things quickly deteriorate. Her bank card is refused, which at first seems part of the curse on her, but then suddenly it’s the whole economy of Europe that has failed and everything becomes turmoil, and there is much more urgency in reaching Alexandria as it is a place of sanctuary.

The escalation from minor inconvenience to all-out disaster is maybe too big and fast a step. It feels as if a whole scene was removed to link these two, and this I feel didn’t help in understanding the play, as for a short period it felt disjointed. But hey, I can live with that. It’s around this point that you start to question what is going on, what the message is. Suddenly the demon curse seems a red herring, now it’s about capitalism and the economic crisis that hit us all.

And maybe it is. Except there is still more. Because this doesn’t take into account the interview that was mentioned earlier, where Dana is trying to get a grant to study the “Consumer Experience”, how every transaction should be an experience more than just the exchange of monies for goods and services. Which brings us back to the opening scene where the man thinks she must be selling sex, and doesn’t feel it is a proper experience if he doesn’t pay for it.

Confused yet? Good, because so am I.

Then we jump again, as Dana and her sister are on a boat finally heading to Alexandria. It’s clear this isn’t a legal passenger ferry, too many people crammed in tight, and concerns over safety. So they are basically refugees fleeing for a better life now? Except it’s going from Europe to Africa, a direct reversal of what normally happens. So is the play about the refugee crisis as well?

This does produce the best scene of the whole play. the stage is tilted to represent sitting on the boat, the sound of waves providing the atmosphere, the creaking noises making for slight discomfort as you waited for something to happen. And when something does happen, the visual is stunning and extremely disturbing. It is amazing what can be done without the need for expensive staging or lighting, rather just throwing in the human body and the feel of disaster and panic.

The ending is just as confusing, the demon and the librarian meeting for the first time, at least to our knowledge, but clearly they are aware of one another from their conversation. I assume this was meant to tie things together, to give meaning, but it just confused me more to be honest.

So back to the original question, what did it all mean? I still don’t think I can truly answer this even now. I would love to go along to one of the many events the Royal Court put on around their plays, often with the playwright or people involved in putting it all together, maybe that would answer some questions. But for now I have to decide for myself what I feel it means.

So, we have demons, we have capitalism, we have consumerism and we have refugees. Maybe it is about them all, everything just thrown in one big pot and stirred until something came out that felt right. And if so, that’s fine. It’s a challenge, an enjoyment to discuss and read about it later, to see if opinion of others match my own as to what it was all about, or if they have insights that would add to my understanding. It just means that on top of nearly two hours of the joy of watching, it also gives more hours of thought after the event, helps to keep the brain active if nothing else.

For me the play worked even without fully understanding it. If you like to be challenged, it’s perfect, if you don’t want to use your mind, there is plenty out there for that too, just avoid this and most other things at the Royal Court. Yes it could have been a little neater, clearer, but at the end of the day, for me it works and that is what it should all be about.

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