As a long-time fan of Hannah Gadsby I was thrilled to get the chance to see her again at the 2017 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. However, all of my hopes were quickly dashed as, during the opening minutes of this year’s show Nanette, Gadsby announced her retirement from comedy, citing herself as no longer funny. I respectfully disagree – plus I’m never 100% sure when comedians are lying to the audience for a laugh – but, armed with that knowledge, I decided to enjoy this show as if it very well could be her last.
Gadsby has always been an interesting comedian. She’s less about setup and punch line, story and payoff, and more about anecdotal tales with twisted and tense interiors and a sometimes-funny / sometimes-upsetting ending. Nanette falls further towards the sometimes-upsetting than any of Gadsby’s other shows ever have – this is not really a comedy event but a reflection on an occasionally traumatic life that has developed a woman that could never have existed otherwise.
Nanette herself is a flash in the pan, a “furious thumb in an apron” masquerading as a barista in a café in an Australian country town. Gadsby admits that comedy festival shows are named long before they’re written, and so describes Nanette only briefly before moving on to the meat of the performance.
And the meat… oh, is it dark.
This isn’t the first time Gadsby has talked about her past. She’s known of her sexuality since early in her life, and has spoken before about her difficulties with coming out, dating, and fitting in as a minority. She has not, however, spoken about the more tense issues, and as she does she fills what is normally a room of laughter with an unease that nobody in the audience is prepared to experience.
At one point, Gadsby narrates a conversation with her grandmother where she is asked when she’ll find a nice man to marry, which is a ridiculous notion for anyone who’s seen her before. She skilfully evades the question not because she doesn’t want to come out to her family, but because she wants to spend as much time as possible discussing the things they do have in common.
She then admits that she’s glad for what she did, not because she was hiding her identity, but because that conversation was the last she had with her grandmother before she passed away.
Gadsby also discusses her art history degree – not before first making fun of herself for getting an art history degree – and moves quickly from humour to anguish, skilfully tearing down ideas about Van Gogh’s depression being a virtue to his art, and releasing a furious anger at Picasso, a paedophile and known misogynist. Again, the tension brews, and it feels almost like a slam poetry performance, carefully crafted words that are brimming with anger about the injustices in the old world that continue on in this current one.
The most visceral part of the evening is Gadsby’s frank admission of her past abuses – the savage beating she received for being gay in her homophobic home city, the multiple sexual assaults she suffered at the hands of men. She does not consider herself a victim, and uses her performance as a platform to promote the discussion of social justice issues and the terror of the ‘straight white male’ archetype that can be an oppressive societal threat.
Still, that doesn’t relieve the uncomfortable silence in the room. It is difficult to experience Nanette as a member of the audience, as you expect one thing and receive another – instead of laughter there is a palpable discomfort about being in the room. Gadsby herself is an ‘awkward’ performer, sometimes stumbling over her words, restarting or giving up on sentences halfway through, and gripping the microphone stand almost as a way to support herself onstage. Still, her persona does not negate her skill, she is an incredible comedian and has constructed a harsh and disconcerting show peppered with just enough humour to be considered comedy.
Nanette will make you uncomfortable, there’s nothing else that can be said. But that’s the point of the performance, you’re forced to reflect on the current state of the world politically and socially, and muse on the lifelong struggle of those not in society’s limelight. Gadsby’s final show – if it does turn out to be her final show – is magnificent to experience, and you’ll only let out the deep, painful breath you were holding when you leave the room.
As a final note: I would like to give the comedy award for best supporting performer to the ASL translator onstage during the performance, as even though I can’t understand sign language, her enthusiasm and experience really shone through and gave me a laugh in some of the darker moments.