How to Hold Your Breath by Zinnie Harris, Royal Court Theatre, 14 February 2015

I have written elsewhere about the Vicky Featherstone regime at the Royal Court seeming to have a relentlessly miserablist agenda.

Janie and I don’t mind gloomy stuff. Crickey, you wouldn’t choose the sorts of theatre that we choose if all you wanted was feel good rom-coms and musicals. But relentless and extreme miserablism?

I can’t remember quite such a quintessentially down-hearted play as How to Hold Your Breath for a long time.

Part of the problem I had with it was my inability to buy into the notion that a financial crisis might have a young, successful, professional Northern-European (presumably German) woman descend from yuppydom to prostitution/migration in but a few days.

Yes of course it is meant to be an expressionistic-type dream play. But to suspend belief sufficiently to buy into a thesis (but for fortune, it might be Europeans desperate to migrate to Africa and the Middle East, not the other way around) it needs sufficient plausibility, which this lacked.

So instead of making its worthy and at times interesting points about inequality, economic power and migration well, it seemed to ram them down our throats to the extent that I (and Janie agreed) almost wanted to throw the metaphorical babies out with the bathwater. Which is a horrible way of putting it, given this play’s unsettling and shocking denouement.

All a great shame because the cast were excellent. Maxine Peake really can act; indeed all of them can. The design was stylish; it was just the unsubtle play that didn’t do it for us. We normally like Zinnie Harris’s plays; we just didn’t like this one.

I can’t remember how we tried to make ourselves feel a bit better with food afterwards – probably Ranoush shawarmas or possibly Mohsen’s Iranian-style kebabs.


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