Disappearing world

Dave Woodhall talks to challenging author Hannah Silva.

Hannah Silva is a poet and theatre maker whose latest play, The Disappearance of Sadie Jones is currently touring. It tells the story of a young woman suffering from mental problems, and the play describes her experiences as she sees, or rather hears, them.

Hannah told us how she came to write such a story. “I’ve always been fascinated with language, work games, the way politicians use rhetoric, the way language is used, how children can pull words apart and makes new words from them. I wanted to take this further in the play, to deconstruct language as a way of getting into the character, to break down the language she uses and to use it to describe the unexplained in her life.

For example there’s a scene where she goes shopping and wants eight apples, but the market trader is selling them as six for a pound. His words become disturbing to her and we see the situation unfolding as she sees it. It’s that sort of situation that we see – sometimes it can be terrifying for Sadie, but at other times it’s just silly, like children and their made-up words.”

Hannah has toured the world and it best known as a poet, so is it difficult to then write for the theatre? “I’m often described as a poet because it’s easier to get work performed that way, but I’ve always worked alongside theatre and use both to get performances into focus. Poets have to be careful not to give poetry to actors as part of their script as that can cause the actor to lose the pace of their role, but I I studied theatre and choreography so it’s easier for me as a poet to write for plays.”

You’ve said that the play is difficult to describe. “The producer keeps asking me to describe it in a snappier way. Basically it’s the story of a woman and how she experiences her breakdown, as shown through the language she hears. Some reviewers take the title of the play literally and believe that she does disappear, while others in the audience can interpret it in different ways. I hear them leaving the theatre and disagreeing over what has happened to Sadie.

“Touring a play can be exciting because you never know how each new audience will react. On the first night at the Lowry in Salford we had a group of schoolchildren as well as several critics, and I was worried about what they would all make of it but the younger members of the audience were absorbed. It’s good to see people who might not have been to experimental theatre before relating to the play.”

It’s obviously a very individual story. How much of you is in there? “I didn’t set out to write it as it came out, it was written as a stream of consciousness. I certainly based some of it on my experience at school but they’re second hand rather than direct. I had friends who self-harmed, who had anorexia, one who attempted suicide. Because I was at a music school with all the added pressure it brings then I probably saw more of that than would be considered normal.”

You once said that you were angry with yourself because you don’t get angry about politics. Is that still true? “I said it when I’d written Opposition, which was my way of engaging with politics. I still have that feeling when I heard political leaders talking and they use very guarded words, they don’t seem to talk to us directly. Past politicians would talk differently but our current leaders seem to have lost what it is to be normal.”

Sadie is obviously a disturbed character. Can you see the world getting better for people in her position? “Things are definitely improved. Schools and the NHS are now more aware of the problems of young people, and in particular how difficult it is for them to talk about their feelings. The website www.youngminds.org.uk supports children with mental health problems but a lot of youngsters don’t talk or seek help. They put up with it because they don’t want to upset anyone or because they’re afraid to say they have a problem.”

The Disappearance of Sadie Jones is at the mac theatre, Birmingham, on 20th November, as part of the Capital New Writing Festival. www.macarts.co.uk