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How To hold Your Breath: a play M. Night Shyamalan didn’t write

Maxine Peake and Michael Shaeffer in rehearsal for How To Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court. Credit Manuel Harlan.
Maxine Peake and Michael Shaeffer in rehearsal for How To Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court. Credit Manuel Harlan.

As I was running late due to the traffic, my 38 bus passed a few cinemas. One of the Films showing everywhere is The Theory of Everything. One cinema had a poster of a stage play on screen called Hamlet with a picture of its star Maxine Peake. “She looks familiar,” I thought. As the bus passed Piccadilly Circus, I saw two big ads of a famous social network and the soft drink company that has bought the London Eye.

Having made it by the skin of my teeth, I sat down as the light dimmed. Whilst a male and a female walked on stage in their underwear and shirt and laid down on what was meant to be a bed, I thought “She looks familiar.” The actress playing the main character called Dana is of course Maxine Peake, who seems to be everywhere at the moment. And so she should.

Dana wakes up after a one-night stand with a man called Jarron (Michael Shaeffer), after a bit of chit chat about breakfast, he feels he has outstayed his welcome and wants to pay her, mistaking her for a prostitute because she came up to him and looked a bit daring in her dress. He is used to paying as it suits him. As he refuses to say where he comes from she tries to ease the tension by telling him it’s ok to have feelings. He tells her he is a demon, the proof lies in his black semen and later the marks on her chest that seems like a hickey which grows throughout the story and gets more painful. He urges her to take the money, which, for the night that it was, 45 Euros. After a bit of an uncertain first scene, Michael Shaeffer grows with every scene he appears in.

Dana lives with her sister Jasmine, played convincingly by Christine Bottomley, who saves the morning by lending her clothes to Dana who has an interview to get a grant to set up a research group. Confused by the night’s passion, she fails the interview, yet when she comes home her sister tells her that she made such an impression at the interview they even are considering her for an international position and they want to go and talk to their colleagues in Alexandria, Egypt. Oh and she will become an aunt. They both decide to grab their single suitcase and make a sisterly trip out of it. What Jasmine doesn’t know is that Dana, had been going to the library earlier. It never is told where they live, apart from in Europe, but it gets established the library is in Berlin, Germany. Her guardian angel is introduced through the human body of The Librarian, Peter Forbes gives a pleasant performance as the librarian and provides together with Maxine Peake, the strongest performances of the evening. They truly work well together. Dana asks The Librarian if he has any books of Goethe, Dante or anything about demons.

Strange things start to occur and one of them takes them to a fictional town named Hartenharten. 45 Euros seem to appear in forms of 2 for 1, a library rebate. From this moment on Dana’s life becomes very surreal and harsh. Harming her sister’s life with it.

Maxine Peake steals our every attention. The three actors who play multiple parts (Danusia Samal, Siobhán McSweeney, Neil D’Souza) were a lovely addition to the main actors’ performances.

What does the play mean? A question that surrounded the air at the bar after the performance. With a set designed by Chloe Lamford, that starts with a photo of a living room taken out of a magazine, and Dana’s journey mentioned in one sentence on a billboard hanging above the actors’ heads, a set spread out like the floor at Ikea. Fridges and office supplies lined up at the back, never used. The traveling demon who appears out of nowhere when Dana needs him, but then when she doesn’t want him anymore he stays away and although she doesn’t want him in her life, like an A class drug, she needs him. The Librarian who showers her with “what to do” books, like our virtual social network friends on the World Wide Web do.

Since neither the sisters grab their tablets or reach for their laptop, because yes, Europe is as advanced as Britain, is the entire play one big Kafkaesque metaphor of how we are being controlled and punished by powerful commercial companies and how society is destroying itself? Looking at the Piccadilly Circus board, The NHS almost being bought up by an American gun company, one certainly might think so. The other question that went through my mind, was the play one big nightmare dreamed up by the cause of depression and were only the last 30 seconds of the play real?

The biggest problem I am having with the play is that it might suffer from the Being There syndrome. A little gem of a book, written by Jerzy Konsinski and adapted to the screen starring Peter Sellers. Perhaps Zinnie Harris’s How to Hold Your Breath is no more than a slightly pretentious mediocre fairy horror tale and we the viewers are seeking answers and solutions in it while there is none to be found? Please go and judge for yourself.

3 Star Review

Review by Danny Reyntiens

Starting with a seemingly innocent one night stand, How To Hold Your Breath is a darkly witty and magical play. Zinnie Harris dives into our recent European history, providing an epic look at the true cost of our principles and how we live now. The production is directed by Vicky Featherstone, designed by Chloe Lamford, with lighting by Paul Constable, music by Stuart Earl, sound design by Gareth Fry and movement by Ann Yee.

The cast includes Christine Bottomley, Neil D’Souza, Peter Forbes, Siobhán McSweeney, Maxine Peake, Danusia Samal and Michael Shaeffer.

How to Hold Your Breath by Zinnie Harris
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
Wed 4th February – Saturday 21st March 2015

Thursday 19th February 2015


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