By Darby Turnbull
I had the pleasure of attending the first iteration of Ash Flanders…is nothing in 2017 and I found his company a delight; his ability to hold court with well- timed quips, bitchy anecdotes and puckish self-absorption made for amusing comfort viewing. Inspired by a meeting with a Dutch street wizard who looked inside him and saw ‘nothing’ led to a riotous exploration of just what that might mean filtered through a single day in his life. Three years later he’s back and the show (and performer) has developed a dimension and maturity that have come at a terrible price. A year of a global pandemic, his industry gutted and his partner being hospitalised in isolation with cancer and covid for three months. For a performer whose works usually contain a kind of jovial navel gazing, this performance allows us to bear witness to the development of an artists voice and personality in the wake of trauma. Director, Stephen Nicolazzo has guided Flanders through the shifts of tone and depictions of these profoundly painful experiences with thoughtfulness and care. As Flanders put it, this cannot have been an easy task for either of them.
This new performance still maintains that wry bonhomie which makes every anecdote crackle and delight; the highlights still include a sidesplittingly hilarious (albeit horrific) extended exploration of a Flanders family dinner in a Chinese restaurant and the existential crisis accompanied by childhood trips to Christian summer camp. The latter includes a rendition of For Annie, by Christian rock band Petra; a deadly serious depiction of a neglected child’s suicide that naturally accompanied their road trips. However, interspersed with these moments of incisive camp are deeply sad accounts of what it was like for him and his partner to go through this momentous experience apart. These set pieces are told in vivid detail with well timed wit; the most beautiful and simple one being a description of walking through the park on the way to the hospital and the loneliness that accompanied it. It’s a testament to the skill and artistry that has gone into the writing and direction that the levity doesn’t feel tasteless or out of place but give them an edge and urgency that couldn’t have existed before.
Faithful and dynamically skilled musical director David Barclay (the man’s a keyboard wizard) joins him on stage, proving just how essential a warm and supportive accompanist is. His presence provided not just musical, but emotional back-up. His quiet responses made him an ideal bridge for the audience and performer.
The musical numbers all provide moments of catharsis; from the full throated I have nothing which allows Flanders to make a grand entrance down the Brunswick Ballroom stairs, with maximum physical comedy to tenderly contemplative Sinking Relation-ship by Georgia Fields.
After the show had ended, I realised that this was the first time I had seen Covid 19 explored in performance, and it reinforced just how important our artists are going to be leading us forward, one of the ways being allowing us to practice empathy with humour. I believe the power of cabaret is often underestimated when it comes to chronicling social change and Ash Flanders…is nothing is a key example of how it can get us a little closer to feeling our way through the moment we’re in. It should never be an artist’s responsibility to mine their trauma for material, the decision to use and explore it in performance can be a loaded experience for all concerned. Ash Flanders shows commendable sensitivity and generosity in sharing his with his audience and I sincerely hope he feels their gratitude and catharsis.