Hmm, I thought: this is not the kind of theatre I would choose to go to; I fret when something is billed as “powerful feminist satire” not because I am averse to some hard core feminism, but because I like my theatre to be proselytising, yes, but to be balanced, moderate and considered in the process. I want to be entertained and persuaded into a change of view, not have it beaten into me. I especially don’t want anything too challenging to write about in this, my first theatre blog!
On the face of it I needn’t have worried; what I experienced at Live Theatre on Saturday evening turned out to be a considered and intelligent piece of writing. Hannah Silva is a poet, who, on reading Fifty Shades of Grey, was disturbed not by the sado-masochism of the sex, but by the heroine’s acceptance of sexual practices that she actually disliked and found painful.
Hannah’s desire to comment on the success of this example of ‘schlock’, writing which is cheap, inferior junk, inspired her to set the text against the life and work of the author Kathy Acker, a powerful writer who created her writing from the words of others. Hannah uses the same “cut up” technique to create a melange of text, some spoken and some projected behind her, to consider the nature of female desire and the way women are subjected to the pain of childbirth, illness and sometimes, sex.
This is a one woman show. It opens with Hannah tearing up Fifty Shades of Grey and adding the torn pages to an enormous pile beside her on the stage. From the start she commands attention and the audience is hushed and expectant, wanting to find out more. What unfolds is not, as I had worried it would be, a diatribe against the brutality of men in their quest for sexual superiority. Instead it is a thought provoking meditation which uses the power of the spoken, written and communicated word to weave together aspects of Acker’s life and work with the text of Fifty Shades.
Acker’s cancer is viscerally brought to life with her severed breast represented by a pear, which is eaten on stage. The cancer growing inside her is referenced to pregnancy and childbirth. Her experience in Mexico, where she went to find alternative healing therapies, is sad and ultimately hopeless; she is mocked by children for having no breasts and we know that her treatment there failed because she died shortly afterwards. Against the cancer’s unsought assaults on Kathy’s body, Hannah juxtaposes the willingly accepted assaults and pain inflicted on the woman in Fifty Shades, making tentative links to the idea of a child inflicting pain on its mother, with the infant becoming dominant while the mother is submissive.
During the illuminating after show discussion we found out that Hannah uses the words of others to compose her narrative. Perhaps feeling that words are an inadequate medium to wholly communicate the intensity of her feeling, she learnt BSL which, with its uncompromising grammar and need for whole body language, enables her to bring a powerful physicality to the performance. She also draws on her previous life as a musician to create a collage of sounds and sometimes words to create an unsettled and disturbing mood. I found her elaboration on the creative process really helpful in trying to understand and form an opinion on the work, which will continue to be shaped and refined as it performed.
But there are no answers to the subtle questions asked in this piece of theatre. Each member of the audience will take from it something which is particular to them and their perception of women’s lives. While I was relieved not to have sat through a tub thumping rant, I could have done with a bit more anger and passion. Hannah performs well, but I was left with a feeling of hopelessness and confusion, rather than an urge to change the status quo.
Maybe I’m missing the point. The show was thought provoking, and having to get my thoughts about it organised so that I can write some kind of coherent response has made me think deeply about the connections Hannah makes. And that, I think, is exactly what she wants us to do.
By Sarah Binns
Guest Theatre blogger for March & April