What does it mean to be a mother – and what does it mean to not be a mother? These are the questions that Sam Potter grapples with in her new play Hanna, a heart-wrenching and heart-warming one woman piece currently on at the Arcola, and, spoiler alert, there may not be an answer to either question.
The concept for the play seems, at least, simple: a young mum discovers that, due to a hospital mix-up, her three year old daughter Ellie is not her biological child. What follows actually couldn’t be more complex, or dealt with more deftly. Through the eyes and words of Hanna, played wonderfully by Sophie Khan-Levy, we’re drawn into a whirlwind of a story. It asks questions about class, race, gender, relationships, parenting, age – but all focussed on Hanna’s love for her daughter, Ellie, a love with such gravity that it keeps the rest of the play balanced.
Between Potter’s script and Khan-Levy’s performance, it feels impossible not to sympathise with Hanna completely. All 75 minutes of the play run as a seamless stream of conscious, pretty much an internal monologue simply made external. Hanna darts between ideas, one thought leading to a seemingly unconnected other, in an entirely convincing way. She is absolutely clear to us, and utterly captivating: Khan-Levy has a particularly wonderful trick of grabbing each audience member with individual eye contact, forcing us to engage, and it’s a fierceness from which it’s impossible to look away.
Director George Turvey serves the piece well, keeping both staging and setting as simple as possible. Hanna could, it seems, be giving a very simple Ted talk, or chatting to us in a pub – and the intimacy invoked by this only makes her more real and compelling. There could perhaps have been more moments of action, but as I was close to tears for the entire second half, I’m not sure if this is necessary.
At the heart of this piece remains the inadequacy that Hanna feels as a parent – and the gratitude that her love for Ellie might be enough to overcome this. It seems to be something shared by all the mothers in the play (based on what we can grasp amidst her biased narration), and whilst at one point it really does seem as if the guilt will come out on top, Potter keeps us hopeful. Hanna is the perfect show to start your new year on the right foot, and will leave you grateful to be alive and loved.
Hanna is on at the Arcola until 24th January, then tours nationally. For more information visit the Papatango website.