How To Hold Your Breath by Zinnie Harris
'Embark on an epic journey through Europe with sisters Dana (Maxine Peake) and Jasmine as they discover the true cost of principles in this twisted exploration of how we live now. Starting with a seemingly innocent one night stand, this darkly witty and magical thriller by Zinnie Harris dives into our recent European history.'
As part of a director/designer collaboration project I visited the Royal Court Theatre as a potential venue to host the concept design for Liliom. As part of this we viewed on-stage and backstage including the set and mechanics for the current show. This was really interesting because the piece included some very interesting set elements such as a mechanical raked section of stage and a bank of large backdrops which gradually revealed the bare and functional extremities of the stage area. The director and I both felt inspired by this space and its potential for our project. So with the aim of experiencing the live space, quelling our intrigue about the show and getting to know each other we booked tickets to see How to Hold your breath'.
It was interesting to see a show where we were already quite aware of many of the visual elements but knew relatively little about the story or indeed any reviews or reactions. I have since explored many of the main critics reviews and noticed a similarly mixed response that I experienced myself. The only thing I would consider arguing was the massive accolade given to our leading lady, played by Maxine Peake. Although I found her performance during the heightened emotional moments very strong I didn't feel she dealt with the subtleties of the more naturalistic moments, and there was for me a lack of real development and dynamic range. The opening few lines were in fact quite cringe worthy, with over the top diction and forced projection. However as I acclimatised myself to the slight exaggerated theatre style (I had not really expected from the Royal Court) I became quite engrossed in the story. I was at first a bit threatened by the strict announcement at the door that this piece was 90minutes with no interval and strictly no re-admittance but actually the time passed quite quickly and it was only towards the last 20minutes I began to feel the rather squashed seating around me.
The story itself had a lot in it and perhaps a little too much which really confused the piece from having a clear focus. We saw as a brief sexual encounter escalated through a stream of events into a dramatic world of change change and crisis. A rather epic narrative normally the reside of major Hollywood disaster movies. These events included the collapse of European economics, which transformed its people into desperate refugees. An unplanned pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage and a successful career spiralled into prostitution. In fact just noting these moments highlight just how ridiculous this collection of incidents are within a single play and yet on the most part it seemed to make sense at the time.
The most refreshing and enjoyable character was a librarian who acted as somewhat of a modem guardian supporting our 'hero' on their journey. This support came in the form of 'self help' books all claiming to solve and endless and very specific range of problems. I liked how this poked fun at our need for instant and easy solutions in a modern society with easy access to 24/7 google searches. Somehow the real figure and a potentially outdated notion of a librarian added humour and a welcome play with theatricality over realism, in often desperate situations. The demon character i was less sure of. I didn't quite grasp all the metaphors I think he was supposed to embody and I don't think he was present enough to truly develop in the piece.
The set was less dramatic than I expected. The large backdrop signs less dominating than I expected as they loomed overhead when we visited the stage. I expected the stage to really transform and yet it stayed largely the same with more subtle differences. The random collection of furniture was largely annoying and totally useless. I found myself increasingly wondering when the mannequin's for example would be used and they just weren't. I understand this design decision probably represented something about our consumerist culture but they just looked a bit messy and had no performative purpose. The bookshelves I liked and feel these should have been used more and in more unusual ways.
However the mechanical stage did prove impressive, particularly at its full raked height. In fact I would say the scene on the refugee boat was by far the stand out moment. Everything at this point worked together. The back wall appeared in its grungy, functional manner to depict the sea, a boat, a warehouse style sick all at once. The high rake gave us genuine peril and the physical movements of the drowning figures a welcome contrast to the otherwise text heavy play. Indeed it was a real shame these physical performers were only used for this very short scene.
So although I loved this moment in the play, the waste of these actors and the extravagance of their presence for such a brief moment left a bitter taste, of wasted public funding on ultimately a quite pretentious play.
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