Woman sleeps with the devil (possibly). That is how Zinnie Harris’ latest play, How to Hold Your Breath, now completing its premiere run at the Royal Court Theatre, opens. We have been here before: Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom (1976) set in seventeenth-century England begins with a post-coital encounter between a young, single mother and a stranger ‘in black’ who claims to be the devil. More earthly flesh than demon, the purpose of Churchill’s ‘man in black’ becomes clear: the devil is in the feminist detail of patriarchy, church, and economic disenfranchisement, systems of social control that punish and condemn socially transgressive, impoverished women as witches.
What then to make of Harris’ Dana (played by the wonderful Maxine Peake) who, as an affluent, educated, twenty-first century woman sleeps with a man who subsequently declares he is a devil? There are aspects of How to Hold your Breath that are relatively easy to fathom: Dana’s one-night stand with the ‘devil’ (who in ‘reality’ is Jarron who claims to work for the UN) occasions a roller-coast ride through a Europe in increasing social turmoil and economic meltdown. The recent post-2008 crisis in Europe figures symbolically throughout the play from the closure of banks to the idea of Western-centric Europeans reduced to stateless refugees (the most visually memorable scene in the Court’s production was a ‘sea’ of numerous extras slithering down the side of a tilted stage during Dana’s voyage out of Europe to reach Alexandria). But in terms of gender, the import of the play’s meaning is, I feel, somewhat denser and darker still.
What turns the opening scene into a personal/political voyage of self/European discovery is the way in which, to the disgust of Dana, Jarron (Michael Shaeffer) assumed he was paying for sex (towards the close of the play Dana will actually turn to prostitution as a means of survival). In one way this probes the idea that we have finally overcome the double standards governing sexual behaviour; in another, to posit sex as a transaction exemplifies lives conditioned by socio-economic forces, rendering personal control, or ‘freedom’, unthinkable.
Neither Dana nor Jarron come away from their initial encounter unscathed: Jarron returns insisting he pay her 45 Euros in order to settle things between them and get Dana out of his head; when she refuses to accept payment (a running motif throughout the play) he warns that her comfortable life will unravel and she will in the end be reduced to taking his money.
With the transactional wheels set in motion for ‘Every Woman’s’ descent into penury and statelessness, pregnant sister Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) accompanies Dana to Alexandria (where Dana is supposedly destined for good fortune – to be awarded a research grant for her work on human interactions and business transactions). What the sisters plan for is a new family life: parentless, they fantasise a future in which the two of them live together with the baby. It falls to Dana to look out for her sister and the baby-to be, but between the devilish Jarron on one side and a librarian (Peter Forbes) who repeatedly pops up to offer ‘how-to-guides’ (a device which mocks the abject ineffectiveness of self empowerment as enshrined in neo-liberalism), she is ultimately unable to save either Jasmine or her baby. A surreal ending also sees Dana dead and then returned to her former life by Jarron with the sense that the nightmare realities she has witnessed will be forgotten.
Vicky Featherstone’s direction combined with Peake’s mesmerising performance admirably fills the cracks in Harris’ writing, as one disaster episode on occasion lurches to the next with little explanation so that an audience has to work hard to fathom what is happening and grapple with the idea of demonic UN officials and librarian guides-to-life (I am all for creative invention and not being spoon-fed, but less in favour of confused writing!). Nonetheless, given how Harris’ ‘Every Woman’ repeatedly refuses to make a pact with Jarron, overall the play provides an interesting gender twist to the Faustian tale, twisted in the interests of offering us a dystopian portrait of two ‘Europes’. Her rejection of the 45 Euro pay-off makes the case for life as a socially unjust transaction in those countries struggling within the Eurozone. Human interaction and not life as a business transaction is where potential recovery (fragile though it is) lies.