Edinburgh International Book Festival
Scottish Power Foundation Studio
“Spoken Word performance can be a tool of dissent, it can give a voice to the dispossessed – and it’s not all ranting these days. Join Phill Jupitus as Porky the Poet, Elvis McGonagall, Hollie McNish and Hannah Silva as their deft rhetoric confronts, parodies and overturns issues of political, domestic and social injustice. Fun performance, clever words, serious intent.” (blurb on the Festival web site). Sometimes it’s a pity to have to review a one-off event and to publish that review in retrospect. How better it would be to be able to tell your friends “Go and see this!” I’m in that position as I write. I wish ‘Protest!’ was mid-run and you could all queue for returned tickets at the Box Office. As it was, the theatre was full for this one-off ‘shard’ (as Master of Ceremonies Luke Wright called it) of the Festival’s ‘Babble On’ series, and you couldn’t have got a return for love nor money.
We were launched into the stream of comic dissent by Phil Jupitus who, in the 1980s, quit a civil service job to become a poet, and who got gigs supporting bands “because I was cheaper than a support band”. Instantly there was a post-punk feel to the proceedings. To me this was a little odd, as though poetic dissent had started when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, as though John Cooper Clarke, Gil Scott-Heron, and Allen Ginsberg had been forgotten; or further back – the polemic verse of left-wing poets of the 1930s, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s political diatribes, Chaucer’s and Juvenal’s satire. Irony was never far away from Phil’s performance; praising the subversive nature of comics like The Beano and The Dandy, he led us in applause for D C Thomson, a newspaper publisher who (correct me if I am wrong) stubbornly maintained an anti-trades-union policy. Phil’s paean to The Beano had the kind of robust rhyme-and-metre scheme that lends a hobnail boot to humorous poetry. The audience couldn’t help laughing, in fact they couldn’t stop. Especially funny was his series of ten-line poems built up from the titles of Fringe shows (although I sincerely hope he decides to give ‘Sex with animals’ a miss this year!)
Phil provided what he and Luke referred to as the ‘glue’ between the other poets. Next up was Elvis McGonagall, and although this will irritate him no end, the comparison with John Cooper Clarke is inevitable. Substitute a Dundee accent for a Salford one, and you have the same facility for using rhyme, rhythm, and refrains. It’s tight, precise, and rapid-fire, with the likes of Margaret Thatcher (yes, she can provoke even from the other side of the veil) and Nigel Farage in his sights. There was a wonderful recitation of clichéd phrases in David Cameron’s voice, and, evoking Sir Harry Lauder, an address to Scottish voters who had not yet made up their mid about independence – ‘Stop your Swithering, Jock’!
There was an instantly obvious dichotomy between the male performers’ work and the females’. The latter’s humour was gentler, the seriousness ramped up. Hannah Silva instantly grabbed our attention by speaking a series of broken semi-syllables into her microphone. Operating a recording loop by foot-switch and varying the same vocal sounds in pitch and stress, she built up multi-tracked layers what can only be described as music, and suddenly over the top of that filled in all the missing semi-syllables to repeat and repeat Ed Milliband’s response to public sector strikes. Intricate, well thought-out, and damnably clever. I can say the same about her other pieces, one of which almost worked like a cumulative folk or children’s song where extra elements are added on at the end of each verse. Except there was nothing folksy, nothing juvenile in her gender politics, her direct expression about prostitution and the female underclass. What is difficult for me to describe is how this use of technology coupled with fragmentary speech built up atmosphere, evoked such a strong emotional response in me. Her repetition of the fact that forty percent of all soldiers fitted with a prosthesis return to war was particularly evocative in the hundredth year since the start of the Great War. Hollie McNish got her points across by words alone. She sustained her technical power right through each long poem without flagging. Again it was sexual politics that were foregrounded. She was able to address serious issues in a vernacular setting – the facility with which she and her elderly grandmother can converse about earthy subjects which are an embarrassment to the mother/daughter generation between them. Hollie presented us with a wonderful poem about what turns her on, starting with bricks, going through a whole lot of other things including the laughter when a fart interrupts foreplay, before returning to bricks. Probably her best poem of the session was the one she wrote when breast-feeding her baby in a toilet, whilst being confronted by a poster of a young woman in a bikini tacked to the back of the door.
I spoke to Hollie after the performance, and put it to her that although it was possible to be more outspoken, more vitriolic, more insulting in an overtly comic work of art – a poem or a cartoon, say – the very fact that it is comic tends to draw its venom, to make an audience take it less seriously. By contrast, someone who enthralls an audience the way that she and Hannah Silva do and puts across a serious point, albeit with distinct threads of humour, has a greater effect and is not so easily dismissed. Hollie was happy and relieved to hear my opinion, as she had feared that the laughter her male colleagues got was a sign of greater impact. Not so, I kid you not.