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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Royal Court


Maxine Peake doesn’t take it easy when she steps on stage. Last year, the fiery 40-year-old actress scaled the heights of Hamlet in Manchester. Now, she barely has a chance to come up for air in Zinnie Harris’ haunting, surreal contemporary tragedy How to Hold Your Breath. It’s receiving a brutally powerful premiere courtesy of director Vicky Featherstone.
As Dana, a woman whose comfortable London life is upended after a one-night stand, Peake is stunning in an exhausting role, one that keeps her on stage throughout the show’s 110 minutes, as all the safety nets of modern Western life get yanked out from under her. The nebulous demonic creature who induces her downfall is the handsome Jarron (Michael Shaeffer). Dana brings him home, and they row the next morning because he thought she was a prostitute and insists on paying her. Dana refuses. But Jarron isn’t someone you want to cross.
Precisely what he is, aside from a power-wielding dominator, remains ambiguous. “I thought you would notice my semen is black, my face twisting, my nails ridged,” Jarron relates in Harris’ urgent, poetic language. I am a devil, I told you, a demon, a thunderclap, I am a really fucking powerful person.” And, he adds, he works for the U.N.
Dana, meanwhile, soon learns she has just days to move to Egypt for her research project in “customer dynamics.” Joining her for the trek is her alone and pregnant sister Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) and a most unusual companion: a librarian (Peter Forbes) whom Dana initially consults for information about demons. He becomes a humorous and eerie mystical figure who keeps popping up during the sisters’ increasingly horrific journey, proffering how-to books that mirror their dire circumstances (and mock the many glib self-help titles out there): “How to Hold Your Sister’s Hand When You Think She Is Slipping Away,” “How to Stay Alive During Prostitution,” “How to Hold Your Breath for a Very Long Time,” to name a few.
En route to Egypt, the banks fail, and Dana and Jasmine are left broke and homeless in a Europe thrown into chaos, while Africa and the Middle East are stable and secure. The sisters have a shot at salvation if they can reach their destination, but crossing the border isn’t as easy as it used to be.
Like Peake, the whole cast, which also includes Danusia Samal, Siobhan McSweeney and Neil D’Souza, is excellent. By reversing our East-West expectations, Harris creates a chilling cautionary tale about interpersonal communication and the judgments we place on others – particularly those who risk their lives to illegally immigrate to the West. It’s a frighteningly real look at how far we can fall, and how precarious our privilege is.


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