The Great Gadsby does it again
Aussie standup Hannah Gadsby was scheduled to quit standup after her previous show, Nanette. Perhaps she underestimated her abilities because Nanette was a show of such uniqueness and extraordinary power, and was so successful that it changed her life. So here we are for the follow-up, Douglas: and it is every bit a worthy successor.
Douglas (named after her dog) is more of a mixed bag than its predecessor, in tone and subject. Among the controlled rage about anti-vaxxers and male entitlement (past and present), there is wilful pedantry towards the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, some art history observational comedy, a section about the evils of golf. There are puns. But even the supposed trivia often comes with more meaningful targets: the golf rage comes with a barb about men shirking their parental responsibilities, and her bit on Where’s Wally? has a white male privilege topper.
Gadsby’s performance reminds me of a cat in many ways. Everything is precise and economical, not a word, emotion or movement is wasted. It is an exercise in control. And as we saw in Nanette, it is the quiet rage that can speak loudest, when the words are right. This is part of what makes Gadsby such a compelling performer. So when she gets stuck into a subject that’s close to her, it can be electric.
In this case, the most powerful sections come on the subject of autism. She has been diagnosed recently as autistic, and she uses this to tell some superficially quite fun stories about being bad at sexy talk (which is usually a bit hack, but here serves a wider purpose) and about being “difficult” in school (ie asking the wrong questions, because her perspective on the world is different). Here, the light and shade are perfectly judged. The easily digestible comic aspects are balanced by the emotional heft of how she now understands these old moments of confusion, how the diagnosis has unlocked her self-knowledge, how it is not the prison it’s often perceived to be, in fact quite the opposite. It’s a triumphant moment to hear Gadsby talk about how much beauty and value she finds in her autism, considering she has a routine in Nanette about the “humiliation” of doing self-deprecating comedy, with all its internalised self-hatred.
Another element Gadsby introduces is a very smart structural one, in which she tells us at the start exactly how the show will proceed, because we have certain expectations and she doesn’t like surprises. With this in mind, you enjoy the entirety of the show on two levels: first at face value, second by charting its progress according to the map she laid out for us. It culminates in the final joke of the show which is just one line, but has the weight of an ending because of how she’s set it up. Super-smart stuff.
If Nanette was a howl of fury that had to be done, and was still located within the trauma she was speaking about, then Douglas is a show that Gadsby seems to actually enjoy performing. It feels more … cathartic. My only quibble is that at nearly two hours it sags a bit towards the end. But overall Douglas is far too good to be considered just “the one after Nanette”, in fact in years to come you might well be more likely to return to Douglas if you wanted a hit of some Gadsby one evening. It is a magnificent achievement. Thank God she didn’t quit after all.
Review by Paul Fleckney