Thursday, 26 February 2015

How to hold your breath @royalcourt @acgrayling @ZinnieH @maxinepeakenews


A little group of us met at the Royal Court to see How to Hold Your Breath, written by Zinnie Harris and with Maxine Peake in the lead role.

Before the play, we attended the related Big Idea talk, 'How to find the Good' presented by Oxford teacher of Philosophy A.C. (Anthony) Grayling. He defined ethics and morals using classical stories to espouse ways to answer the Socratic question of how should one live one's 1000 months well. Grayling promotes humanism, whilst drawing in this talk mainly upon the gods and philosophers of Greece to illustrate his points.

I like his ideas around secularly finding one's own path although there needs to be a basic supportive context in which to achieve this. He talks of resisting habits which simply consume living without creating high points and of the need to spend the most productive 250 months well. In 45 minutes he was able to open many lines of thinking. A spike to add to my life collection. If we all light up we can scare away the dark.

And then, after pause for refreshment and chatter, I took up a front row balcony seat as the devil had a one night stand with Dana the customer relations expert. Now the devil doesn't like being in debt, but his attempts to pay Dana were rebuffed and led to a ratcheting spiral of descent for Dana in what became an increasingly fractured Europe.

This devil has a Mephistophelian scar across his chest where his soul has been removed. Unlike in Faust, we see Dana apparently having an upper hand because of the debt. In Goethe, Faust is trying to find the essence of life (ahah, an AC Grayling connection) and Mephistopheles manipulates the world to help him see it. In this we see equivalent manipulations as the devil attempts to extract the 45 Euro debt repayment from Dana.

And this devil plays hardball. After low-key initial attempts, he just keeps increasing the pressure. We see the ruin of economic Europe, personal tragedy and horror as the play unfolds.

There's some set-piece staging too, with interventions from a difficult librarian who mainly seems to stock 'how to' guides. There's also a Greek chorus of interviewers for what could be Dana's next job.

Maxine Peake's performance is extremely strong, and the immediate accompanying cast of her sister(Christine Bottomley), the devil(Michael Shaeffer) and librarian(Peter Forbes) all play well. Other characters are less developed and are there chiefly as instruments of the production. In a play that mixes together a wide range of plot-lines, Zinnie Harris creates many themes to deal with in the 2 hour continuous run-time.

When we chatted again afterwards, I said I was really pleased to have seen this - which has been written with quite some ambition. It wasn't what I was expecting, and because of the many different strands, we could take away different elements from the production's ideas. Like Grayling suggested, it's important to have the right personal character to take away the right action from a situation.

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