Thoughts about 'Schlock!'

Schlock! Hannah Silva
Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, November 2014
NB This isn't a review, more extensive dramaturgical thoughts on an early version of Hannah's show

‘How much pain are you willing to experience?’ This is the question that weaves its way throughout Hanna Silva’s supremely intense show, ‘Shlock!’, part spoken word and part performance. As with everything in ‘Schlock!’, this question is heavy with double, triple, quadruple meanings, all folding in on themselves. Primarily, it is a quotation from ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and one of the terms listed in a sado-masochistic sex-contract – but it is also the question an unborn son asks his mother, the question a doctor asks a mother suffering from cancer and a question that Hannah is really asking of the entire female race. It is also the question the audience, exhausted and tingling with ideas, might be asking themselves after this challenging, richly textured and acutely demanding performance.

The show begins with Hannah sat on a near empty stage, eagerly biting and munching her text of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. To the right of Hannah is a mountain of paper and ripped up books, with a light glowing from below. Occasionally Hannah will walk over to this mound of words and speak into the microphone above. Other times, she will sit at a table above the torn pages - and it looks a little like she is giving birth to the pages. Behind Hannah, sections of texts and random words – which are split up and merged to form new words, ideas and sounds – flash up as Hannah speaks.

So, what might seem like a relatively spare stage is already heaving with sub-text before Hannah has barely begun her take down of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ – her angry, idealistic and imploring exploration of the complicated and twisted relationship between the female body and mind, pleasure and pain, free will and submission. Add to this sections of poetry so taut and thick, you could practically munch on them – and a number of fraught, arresting and often baffling sections involving a pregnant mum who seems to only communicate through sign language and you will get an idea of just how dense and thoughtful a show this is.

Back to that opening image. Hannah munches down on a book, tears at the pages and smiles at the audience as we all file in. She makes eye contact with us. She wants to like us and for us to like her – and she is willing to experience some level of pain to achieve that. At first, the show is near-impossible to figure out and it’s really just a heavy cascade of words and images and flickers of meaning; a little like reading through an unfamiliar collection of poetry for the first time, restless and confused and unable to finish an entire poem, or even a thought.  

Images and ideas flash from the stage. An unborn boy talks to his pregnant mother and asks her how much pain she is willing to take. Hannah reads extracts from ‘Shades of Grey’ and the female protagonist’s compromised relationship with her body, the strange and disturbing ways she is willing to physically turn against herself, emerge in fiery sparks. We learn that the pregnant mother is called Kathy, who turns out to be a famous feminist poet. Kathy discovers she has cancer and goes to hospital, where she is peered at by male doctors – their flashlights piercing her eyes – and asked to make a choice between someone else’s health and her own; asked to separate her own physical needs from the needs of that other unborn boy, who is kicking somewhere deep inside her stomach.

There are many moments when the sheer volume of ideas and mode of delivery threatens to overwhelm. It feels like Hannah is at an important juncture – somewhere very interesting but very complicated in between performance and spoken word. She is a poet of quite startling clarity – and part of me would have preferred to listen to her poems and allowed them to wash over me; to have more space and time to allow Hannah’s words to linger and to come to my own conclusions about where those words might lead me.

However, Hannah is also a talented performer – and acutely attuned to the double, triple, as many as you bleeding like meanings that the stage affords. I have seen few performers capable of loading a moment with such intensity of meaning and that is something worth holding onto and nurturing – but I also think more variety is needed and a little more understanding of the capacity and attention-span of the ‘average’ (whatever that means) spectator. At the moment, ‘Shlock!’ feels like a peculiarly intense poetry reading with some performance layered on top – that makes for an exceptionally loaded combination. I think if Hannah took a step back from her work, and really allowed her audience and words a little more space to breath, the material would only deepen.

It is the less insistently meaningful sections that feel most powerful. The scenes involving the pregnant mother – who communicates mainly through sign language – were particularly strong. At one point, the woman seems to be talking about the power of reading – although frankly she could be talking about anything and there is real joy in that, the freedom we have to make what we will of this woman’s private thoughts. Anyway, it looks like she is talking about reading and she opens a book and, with just her hands, creates a bird who flies from the pages and flutters away. There is something about that flight, that possibility, that will stay with me – and that seems far more of an indictment of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, and all its literary and emotional limitations, than some of the other more complex and word-filled criticisms levelled at the text.

There is another moment when Kathy, told about her cancer, seems to beat at invisible walls that surround her. Again, nothing is said here – but that uniquely compromised relationship between a woman and her body is powerfully expressed. In another scene, Hannah reads from the book with a tiny flashlight pointed at her face. It is like she is being inspected, possibly even buried, by a force she cannot see.

There’s a whole other section in which Kathy travels abroad to seek alternative treatment for her cancer that, frankly, washed right over me. I would’ve got even more from this piece if Hannah had tried to say a little less. But the vast range of methods that Hannah has to express herself on stage is really quite something, as too is the utter conviction of her performance. There are some sections that verged on pretentious but Hannah’s belief in her performance stops you from laughing or stepping outside the show. Perhaps that is what makes her fairly exhausting to watch.

Hannah also has this strange ability to fast forward through words, as if she is a ticker tape in vocal form. It is a skill she used to brilliant effect throughout her past show,‘Opposition’. In ‘Schlock!’, Hannah uses this skill just once. Our pregnant mother, Kathy, has just found out about the cancer and the possible effect it might have on her and her baby. Hannah rattles through the words – chemo, cancer, ca, c, c, c, c – and the urgency of that speech, the way it judders ahead beyond Hannah’s control, brilliantly evokes the uneasy relationship between a woman and her body and the speed at which this control – this illusion of control - might be taken away. 


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