Friday, April 29, 2016

How to Hold Your Breath

First of all - it's been a while since I've written a review! In the year or so since my last review, I finished my PhD, graduated, and moved to Tasmania to take up a new job at the university here. Now that I'm all relocated and settled, I'm hoping to write reviews a little more regularly than the "not at all" I've been doing lately (although the Sydney focus has obviously been replaced with a Hobart one!). 

How to Hold Your Breath (Loud Mouth Theatre Company) runs at the Moonah Arts Centre from April 29-May 7 2016. By Zinnie Harris, directed by Julie Waddington.

Zinnie Harris’ play How to Hold Your Breath is a play preoccupied with ideas of transaction. A young woman, Dana (Simone Dobber), sleeps with a young man (Robert Maxwell), who thinks she is a prostitute. When she refuses to accept money for sex, he is unable to comprehend this, because he is a demon (one who has sold his soul), and cannot bear the thought of being in debt to her. He tries repeatedly to repay this debt, but Dana will not let him: a researcher whose area is the intersection of the commercial and the emotional, she is fascinated by the way the relationship between vendor and consumer is like a romantic relationship. “I do have power over you,” she crows to the demon, when he unwillingly reveals that he is falling in love with her, demonstrating that she, like him, is obsessed with the notion of transaction, but levies her toll in emotion, not money.

But what happens when this capitalist economy falls apart? As Dana and her sister Jasmine (Elka Bezemer) travel from Berlin to Alexandria so Dana can interview for a research fellowship – an opportunity she feels she has not earned, but is eager to take up anyway – all the banks in Europe fall apart. The rules of transaction change. Emotion is worthless in this new world order (and indeed, the most emotional character, Jasmine, is broken by her emotionality and left unable to function). Dana and Jasmine find themselves cut adrift from society, moving from bourgeois comfort to refugee status overnight.

This exploration of the commercial and the affective, using the European refugee crisis as a lens, ought to be a good match, but sadly, this is not the most coherent production of what is not the most coherent play. Harris has a lot of balls in the air with this script, and she never adequately manages to reconcile the theoretical underpinnings, the magical realist plot about the demon, and the meditation on the refugee crisis. What results is… well, kind of a mess. Mess can be creative and productive and beautiful and meaningful, but in this particular case, some moments of brilliance are lost in meandering conversational pieces which seem designed to hammer home a point rather than move the story forward.

On the subject of movement: this particularly production suffers greatly in this regard. The surrealist nature of the script suggests the need for fluidity in the play’s progression – several episodes, such as Dana’s interactions with the librarian (Ivano del Pio) take place in a liminal otherworldly space, which overlays and overlaps with the more realistic political world – but the insistence on light changes, stoppages, and set changes after every scene gives the play an odd staccato rhythm which does not fit at all. The momentum is halted, and any energy that had been created dissipates – often quite unnecessarily (the set changes are, I would contend, not needed, particularly given that this is not a play that requires an especially naturalistic treatment). Likewise, the performances of the cast never generate the momentum required to push the show forward: and given that, at almost two and a half hours, the show is already much too long, this is a considerable weight that needs pushing.

I can certainly understand the decision to program this play: given its subject matter, it obviously has resonance in the Australian political climate. However, Harris’ script is uneven at best – there are some excellent moments, but other scenes in which I found myself completely tuning out (particularly the ponderous scenes between the two sisters), as well as a graphic depiction of sexual violence that felt unnecessary. It is reminiscent in parts of Sarah Kane’s Blasted (which had its premiere at the Royal Court twenty years before this play premiered there), but it never reaches the poetic heights that play did: instead, it feels like a mish-mash of different ideas smashed together, beginning with an almost comic tone and ending in heavy-handed didacticism, with not a lot of overall coherence. With stronger design and direction – which in turn probably would have contributed to stronger performances – it’s possible this could have been quite compelling, but as it is, How to Hold Your Breath never quite comes together.