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11 February 2015

Europe and its demons: How To Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court Theatre

Beyond the intellectual weight of the play's message the production falls a little flat.

By Barbara Speed

You can tell a lot about a writer by how they personify evil. For Christopher Marlowe, the devil was a jolly Renaissance man, fond of travel, women and money. In the 1999 film Dogma, murderous fallen angel Ben Affleck is a slacker hanging out in Wisconsin. And in How to Hold Your Breath, a new play by Zinnie Harris currently playing at the Royal Court Theatre, the devil is a rakish international businessmen who hates women. 

The play centres on young woman Dana (Maxine Peake), who lives in Berlin with her sister Jasmine (Christine Bottomley), and has a one-night stand with said mysterious businessman (Michael Shaeffer). On waking, he reveals both that he is a demon, complete with “black semen”, and that he was under the impression she was a prostitute. She refuses to take his money, and, terrified at the prospect of a human relationship he can’t settle with cash, he vows she will want his 45 euros (he’s evil and ungenerous) in the end.

From here, the plot strays into dystopia as the sisters travel through a crumbling Europe on their way to a job interview and end up penniless in a one-hotel town. The demon makes a few reappearances, as does an eerie librarian figure (Peter Forbes) who offers Dana books to improve her situation: “Economic Reality in Post-euro Europe”, “How to Spot Danger and Do Something about It“,  “How to Survive an Economic Disaster“. 

The “message”, it seems, is that we’re all much closer to a tumbling-down of  our neoliberal values than we’d like to think. Dana is applying for a research position in which she’d examine how customer engagement could become real human interaction – she’s the ideal modern capitalist, marrying emotional value with financial transaction. Up to a point, both Dana and Jasmine are confident that they will be saved from their situations by the system. As Jasmine puts it: “We live in Europe… nothing bad really happens. The worst is a bit of an inconvenience. Perhaps not such a good mini-break. But really in the grand scheme of life, not so bad.”  

Yet, as the plot makes clear, it only takes a second financial crisis and a missing train ticket to reduce both to economic migrants, stripped of all belief in human goodness, bureaucracy, and the type of knowledge you get from books. The conditions of a crumbling society are shown to be hardest on women, neatly matching up with the demon’s misogyny.

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Unfortunately, beyond the intellectual weight of the play’s message, Peake’s ever-enthusiastic and watchable performance, and the sparky relationship between the two sisters, the production falls a little flat. The black comedy and eye-rolling that could have pulled the play back from its over-earnest thesis are lacking beyond the first few scenes, and one can’t help feeling that the use of a series of large billboards to illustrate capitalism and its demise is a little ham-fisted.

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The presence of the demon character , whether he’s pulling the plot’s strings to punish Dana or not, makes it clear that this is a twisted morality play of modern Europe, where characters are taken down a peg for their worldviews and smug economic situations. But the best devils in modern culture are those that poke fun at the very idea of an absolute evil. After all, even the most misogynistic international playboy has some goodness in him. 

How to Hold Your Breath is directed by Vicky Featherstone and is on at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre until 21 March.