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  • Field and McGlynn

Hannah Silva

  • England


Hannah Silva is an award winning writer and theatre maker. She was born in Dorset, grew up in Suffolk and is now based in Birmingham.

Silva’s texts and performances play on the borders of artforms, drawing on her background in music (Conservatoriam van Amsterdam), choreography (Dartington College of Arts) and theatre (MFA Exeter University).

Her work for theatre includes a solo show, Opposition and Total Man, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Ted Hughes Award.  Her first radio play Marathon Tale (co-written with Colin Teevan) won the 2014 Tinniswood Award and her new one-woman show Schlock! was 2014’s Aldeburgh Commission.

Her debut poetry collection Forms of Protest (Penned in the Margins, 2013) has been widely praised and was Highly Commended in the Forward Prizes.

She has shown her work throughout the UK and internationally including at the Tokyo Design Centre, Krikri International Festival of Polyphony in Belgium, Latitude Festival, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Southbank Centre, Sage Gateshead, and the Lowry. She is currently Associate Lecturer in Poetry and Playwriting at Birkbeck, University of London, and Associate Artist of Penned in the Margins.

Critical perspective

Hannah Silva is an award winning writer whose performances cut across the boundaries of art forms. Her work fuses provocation, righteous anger and virtuosic linguistic play into a heady and cerebral mix.

By turns a poet, playwright and musician, she is becoming increasingly acclaimed for her innovative explorations of form, voice and language. Always challenging and unpredictable, she has turned her distinctive voice to subjects as varied as distance running, political rhetoric and paranormal science, infusing all with a frenetic and vivid sense of purpose

Thanks to a handful of well-received solo and ensemble shows, Silva has earned a growing reputation as one of the most distinctive and powerful performers on the British poetry scene. The Guardian’s Clare Armistead has praised her work’s combination of “texture and musicality” with a “shrewd critique of the current political scene”. The Times has declared that “her physical performances, fast-talking delivery and innovative use of cut-up text make her one of the most ambitious and entertaining poets in the country.” To What’s On Stage, she is simply “radical, political, courageous.”

She is particularly known for working across media. From a productively mixed background in music and choreography she comes to the task of authorship with the firmly held belief in the uselessness of generic distinctions. Silva is a poet whose primary mode of expression lies in live performance not manuscript. And as an author she faces two problems in capturing the fiery ephemerality of her live shows on the page.

The first arises from her signature vocal pyrotechnics. In her terms, this is a result of her exploration of what she calls on her website, “ways of applying the articulation techniques I’d used with an instrument to my vocal performance. Breath, the placement of the voice, articulation, intonation (melody), rhythm and compositional approaches to writing play a large role in my current work.” Reviewing her 2011 appearance at Edinburgh, the Fringe Review, Tim Wilcock marveled at this aspect of her work, calling “Silva is something of a vocal gymnast with a capacity for rapid delivery and the ability to cut together not only a wide diaspora of text but also a volley of sound incorporating syllables or even just single letters.”

But just as important as her voice is her creative use of technology. Much of her live work involves a loop pedal, often used when playing the guitar, allowing her to circulate her voice and build up syncopated layers of sound to create an “immersive experience which that she explains “explores the connections between sound and sense.”

Yet Silva is relaxed about this page/stage distinction, and has mocked the dichotomy in a blog post entitled ‘Poets Prefer Marmalade, which satirized the received ideas of the poetry world. “I don’t write for paper,” she explains on her website:

my writing doesn’t work on the page, which is tricky as that is what people often judge. When I’m making a show like Opposition I spend little time working on the text on the page, it’s all about trying it out in performance. Initially I was interested in working with movement and spoken text/meaning separately, and then putting them together to produce new meanings. With Opposition I needed the gestures to emphasize the meaning/vocal delivery a lot of the time. I took gestures from politicians and inflated them to extreme levels; I used images when working on the physical material such as the idea of a puppet, or a laughing clown.

In 2011 Silva took the above show, Opposition, to Edinburgh. In this piece she used a loop pedal to layer up words and sound, crafted from repeated renditions of statements by Labour politician Ed Miliband. Her loop pedal techniqueshelpedSilva turn physical theatre and performance poetry into a pointed travesty of the verbal contortions of modern political discourse, and offer a withering, revelatory verdict on its meaninglessness. As Clare Armistead observed in the Guardian, when Miliband’s “statement is fed through the loop it becomes simultaneously trite, anxious and interminable, which seems a pretty shrewd critique of the current political scene.”In Tim Wilcock’s assessment in the Fringe Review, when these “sound bites [were] deconstructed and reassembled seemingly at random but in such a manner that they actually begin to make sense” amounting to “a skilful dissection of political and other forms of language.”

Some of this material reappeared in her debut poetry collection Forms of Protest in 2013. Among other things, it turned the same disjunctive techniques that Silva had applied to Miliband’s words to the primordial incantations of the Old Testament, revealing similar circularity at work, and rendering familiar phrases unfamiliar and threatening: “and the earth //  was without / was without // and the earth // and the / and // and the earth was without God.” The collection also represented an extended exploration of the roots of political language in wider discourse, and Silva managed to capture her fiercely observant voice on the page.

This collection was acclaimed within the poetry community. In the Literateur, Robin Boothroyd declared the collection “an exciting, enraged debut: you can feel the blood pulsing and can almost taste the bile. So convincing are these poems that, having finished Forms of Protest, it is unlikely you will be hoodwinked by doublespeak ever again.” Fellow avant-gardist Steven J Fowler responded by saying that the book “really blew me away, breaking truly new ground in the process of a fundamentally performative poet making the radical adjustments to the page, with such grace and skill, but also in a way that leaves something unique as a trace in this book.”

In 2014, Silva wrote and directed a show called The Disappearance of Sadie Jones, exploring the interior world of a protagonist determined to vanish. By drawing inspiration from Strindberg’s concept of a dream play, in which ‘one consciousness holds sway’ over everything else, Silva’s piece was an expressionistic voyage into a tortured psyche. “The play was written from a gut impulse, as a kind of protest," explains Silva. "I tried to communicate emotions and feelings that can't be expressed in logical, syntactically-correct sentences. "I want us to see Sadie, from her perspective, from the inside, and to glimpse her understanding of 'disappearance'."

The production won funding from the Jerwood foundation, and won over most critics. What’s On Stage thought it “a disturbing concept very well executed” but worried that it might be “so cerebral that the effect is alienating rather than involving.” However, the Bristol Evening Post thought that “Silva’s fascination with language – its codes and shapes, limitations and freedoms – creates a script that, at times, resembles music in its motifs and repetitions; moments of inarticulacy hint at distress as much as an inability to fully express the connections between mind and matter” They concluded that “this brave and powerful play confirms Hannah Silva as a truly original voice.”

After 2013’s short solo piece, Total Man, Silva’s most recent performance has been Schlock!. A feminist satire and  a meditation on pain, the body and self, it took aim at the banalities of Fifty Shades of Grey, splicing these up with the words of avant garde novelist Kathy Acker. Premiered at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, it weaved together British Sign Language, soundscapes and poetry. Exeunt thought it “Weird and unsettling … authentic and deeply considered,” and Chris Goode hailed it as a “a whip-smart but irresistibly seductive tour de force”

As the increasing respect for her risk-taking work suggests, poetry and theatre audiences alike have a burgeoning appetite for her brand of highly cerebral performance.  The print renditions and online videos helps us get some way to understanding her work. But those who want the authentic richness of Silva’s provocations need to experience them first hand.

After all, as she states, “My poetry only really exists in performance. On the page it’s just a score … My poetry is so musical and so linked to the voice and performance that words on the page can only ever be the blueprint.” (www.thepublicreviews.com, 2011)


Forms of Protest


Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry