I have always admired the Royal Court’s bravery towards experimental writing, encouraging new writers to dig for their artistic twists and chip away at their underlying political and social stances. Leaving the West End glamorous ego behind, they are prepared to take risks and expose their writers’ personal beliefs for a global audience. Whether you are prepared for a play’s slaughter or coronation, an audience can easily stumble into a world of confusion and criticism or praise from all four corners of Sloane Square, but it is every writer’s dream to be welcomed into the Royal Court. With every Royal Court performance, you must be prepared to surrender your existing knowledge and memories you had of this world and experience the uncontrollable creative force.
Before I swamp this post with endless praise for Maxine Peake, the play’s title How To Hold Your Breath intrigued me enough to book my ticket. Now, I am not a big fan of reading the backstory as I prefer the element of surprise. However, the “How To” reference was very familiar turf. Being a perfectionist, the constant battles between your mind’s angel and devil can be draining. My schoolgirl’s motto “dream, achieve and succeed” was drilled into my childhood so failure was never an option. During my school life, my obsession with How To books soothed my burning desire for education and replaced the drone of my supply teachers with simple life recipes. And so the “How To addiction” began: How To Write The Perfect Essay. How To Please Your Teachers (no apple included). How Not To Get Bullied. How To Be Popular Whilst At School. How To Dress. How To Eat….etc. Little did we know about the “How To” author, the self help books became more like self hate books, binding life through instruction rather than trial and “so what” error. I am pleased to say How To Hold Your Breath became the How To Write The Perfect Play for this year (so far).
To sum up the play’s drama: Woman has one night stand with Demon. Woman loves Demon. Demon doesn’t love Woman…so let’s make her life a living misery until she accepts the forty-five euros for the good sex. Yup! Something that certainly isn’t explored in our daily How To books. The fantastical element made me question the disappearance of Royal Court’s gritty realism. I was hoping for something more believable than encountering a demon. Yet, the line “his semen was black” and the Demon’s ranting earned a few chuckles from the audience. Reflecting upon Michael Shaeffer’s Demon, my heart became entwined with Maxine Peake’s Dana. Mixing her lustful want with his despicable demands, the power play between these two characters was indeed heated. I was almost screaming at Dana as her deflated girl power attitude crumbled into a desperate Disney character plea, but considering her circumstances who I am to judge.
The sisterhood of Dana and Christine Bottomley’s Jasmine was simply beautiful. The attempts to disguise their tragic fate shoved an emotional lump in my throat and dared me to suck up the tears. Within the doomsday scenario, it was refreshing to see two powerful female leads steering the play into glorious moments of gasps, giggles and grunts. Personally, I warmed to Jasmine as her positive thinking and jokey nature suited the ideal sister. However, I expected her happy vibes to be crushed at some point. Horrifyingly, she was left to endure the mental and physical suffering of a miscarriage. During Jasmine’s upsetting monologue, I was consumed with grief as she knelt on the ground, describing the emotional torture of blood and a “headless child”. It made me want to rush on stage and give her bloody big hug (thank goodness I was sitting in the Dress Circle!) But in all seriousness, the miscarriage drama was truly touching and, as a member of the audience, I was made to feel helpless as I was confined in my comfortable seat to watch the sisters’ drama unfold.
Also, I can’t forget to mention Peter Forbes’ comically timed librarian character as he rocks up at the most inconvenient times, with a suitcase or trolley filled with How To books. Like an annoying fly on the wall, he tries to comfort Dana whilst her life is left in tatters.
How To Hold Your Breath certainly stole my breath away at the end. Dana left standing there, not having a clue what has just happened to her, but ready to introduce her presentation to begin a new life in Alexandria. I came away from the Royal Court mentally raving about the production on the tube and train and before I knew it I was back home, with little memory of what I had just witnessed. Normally, this is an extremely bad thing for a play to be unmemorable, but I believe this play submerged me into a frighteningly dramatic emotional explosion and then fired me back to the surface. Little did I know the Royal Court had left a growing mark over my heart…
How To Hold Your Breath closes on 21st March 2015. Almost a sell out! Book here