Mixed bag for Maxine Peake-led How to Hold Your Breath
Zinnie Harris's 'Brechtian fable' at the Royal Court is praised for its 'epic ambition' but labelled a 'bumpy ride'
The premise behind Zinnie Harris's elliptical, poetic new play is that the experience of migration into western Europe is reversed. Europe is in meltdown, the politicians are unavailable, money and jobs are scarce, there's nothing for it but to leave and hope for the best on a crowded boat... She's raising an imaginative alarm bell... And she does so in the story of Maxine Peak's Dana, first seen having sex with the devil aka Jarron (Michael Shaeffer) who works for the United Nations after he's misconstrued her bar room demeanour as an invitation to the abyss... Vicky Featherstone's production is not exactly exciting, nor does it frame much in the way of good acting, but it does maintain this air of mystery and disillusionment... This is not a literal narrative, but a Brechtian fable of social and political disintegration, without the vivacity of a play like Mother Courage."
Maxine Peake was last seen on stage in Manchester as Hamlet. She brings the same crop-haired magnetism and emotional directness to her role in Zinnie Harris's new play which keeps her on stage for two uninterrupted hours... The bulk of the play shows Dana, accompanied by her pregnant sister Jasmine, attempting to reach her destination as Europe goes into financial freefall... The problem here, however, is twofold. You feel Harris approaches her subject with her mind made up and that her characters have the fixed attitudes of those capitalised figures in medieval plays with names like Diligence and Vanity. And, although the play is basically about Dana's resistance to temptation, what you get, dramatically, is repetition rather than development or debate. Thankfully, there is always Peake to watch."
It's epic, for sure, in that Dana's journey involves trains and a doomed refugee boat - not just your metaphorical handcart - as she treks from Berlin to Africa. Yet Harris's apocalyptic nightmare of Europe plunged into bankrupt chaos is, alas, not convincingly dramatised... [the play] is obviously a variation on the Faust legend too. At the off Dana has picked up Michael Shaeffer's slick-suited, golden-haired Jarron for a one-night stand. She gleans that he's a United Nations exec and falls for him... The big problem is the dialogue: an awfully bumpy ride with unconvincing pillow talk and monetary mini-lectures among the more experimentally poetic passages. And suggesting it's all a dream can't hide the fact that nothing adds up.
Fans of the brilliant Maxine Peake - and I count myself one of them - will find much to savour in her performance in this nightmarish new drama... Peake moves from innocence via bemusement to cringing desperation. Even in her fiercest moments she remains elfin and delicate - there's a lovely lightness of touch here, yet also a piercing precision... Vicky Featherstone's production does justice to the twisted humour of the writing. Yet the play, in its epic ambition, staggers under the weight of its overwrought symbolism. The treatment of contemporary issues feels provocative but perfunctory. And though there are flashes of vivid inventiveness, even of magic, in between lie gaping longueurs.
At the state-funded Royal Court Theatre they have a come up with a play so insistently pessimistic, it's almost as if it was created by Private Fraser from Dad's Army (the one who said 'we're all doomed')... The more surreal the action, the less we follow the play's arguments. It is a mark of Miss Peake's stage skills that we still hold some interest in Dana's fate. Presumably this weird little show is a metaphor for Europe's debt crisis, the demon representing the lenders who somehow forced money on the Continent. But there are too many contradictions. Is Harris saying that Europe, with its deranged borrowing, is like sweet Dana?... This play ends up posing more questions about its own structure than about the politics of a Europe which, in the Big State lie of 'never-never' subsidies, has been all too ready to accept money from the dark side.