“Are you happy being Ed Milliband?” This is not a question with which I ever anticipated having to grapple; fortunately the process of ‘being Ed Milliband’, for the purposes of this show by the spoken word artist Hannah Silva, involved nothing more traumatic than the wearing of a name badge and the reading of a slogan at a chosen moment.
Silva’s ‘Little Political Speech Opera’ takes the form of a collage, a collection of slogans, stock phrases and spin. Through a process of cutting and splicing, looping and repetition, any residual meaning these words may have held soon seeps away, creating a semantic vacuum where everything is better, bigger, and bolder.
Silva, grey-suited and neck-tied, is already spouting words as we sit, a steady drip-drip of sound delivered with a forced smile: “spend, borrow, spend, borrow, tax, tax.” This act of deconstruction and morpheme-extraction ends up creating a Dadaist stream of banalities and absurdities – something akin to verbal bird-song – which Silva then takes one step further via the use of a loop pedal. Through a process of sonic layering, this lexical minestrone forms a backdrop over which she then recites poetry or plays the flute.
The piece fuses the words of Thatcher, Obama, Reagan, Churchill and Cameron with a dash of the BBC weather report. Any distinction between them, any dividing line, is soon blotted and lost. At one point she leads her audience in an extended episode of call-and-response. We bat slogans back and forth, again and again, until they are just noise, a vapid a cappella chorus.
It’s all part of an increasingly dense thicket of words in which it seems that the more people speak, the less they have to say: the chirp and babble of Twitter, with its constant prompt of: ‘what’s happening?; the streaming of status updates; the stern remonstrations of the Sat-Nav: “U-turn, you-turn”. Silva’s not the first to pick and chip at political speechifying, the hollowness of spin, but rarely has it been done with such vigour. Her performance is also physically intricate: she jerks and twitches, grins and grimaces; at times it’s like watching a kind of Tourettian body-popper at work.
Though there’s a – perhaps inevitable, given the nature of the piece – slack patch in the middle of things, Silva succeeds in both creating an inventive and arresting piece of performance and in making the audience actively think about language, its uses and misuses, the potency of words.