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[Performance Analysis:] FIRST TIME, The Pleasance Theatre, London.

For clarification: where 'Nathaniel' is mentioned in this text, this refers to the onstage persona of performer Nathaniel Hall; where 'Nathaniel Hall', or simply 'Hall', is mentioned, this refers to the performer himself.

I must admit that I found myself rather at odds with the rest of the audience who seemed to really gravitate towards this performance. However, after attending the post-show Q&A, I now understand that a significant number of these audience members have had some access to this performance and to the solo performer Nathaniel Hall himself in the past — or, indeed, work with him regularly now — and are more than familiar with this performance’s nature, with the intended ethics extending beyond it, and with Hall’s own ethos, intentions and ‘soul’. I, however, can only judge this work on the performance alone, and my reading is rather different…

Ultimately, Hall’s aim in this performance is to raise awareness about, destigmatise and alleviate the guilt, shame and sorrow we attach to living with HIV. It is also a very personal and cathartic performance for Hall who, through it, is staging his own personal history with the condition and the stigmas and shame he has experienced in direct relation to this. For him, this is a difficult but necessary performance. This is clearly one reason why humour — upon which I shall elaborate below — is so prevalent in this performance, to mitigate the trauma Hall attaches to this history, to keep his head above the pain this retelling brings with it, so to speak. However, just how far Hall is able to take this performance, and how it suffers or benefits from the complexity and depth of information he pours into it, is something that Hall needs to really explore as an artist if his work is to maintain the activism, integrity and intellect he clearly possesses outside of this performance. His aims are honourable, resonant, important, but their communication through this performance, which is, at times, comical, endearing, reflective and heartfelt — but perhaps only in its themes alone — is wholly questionable.

Recurrently barely clad, Hall forces us to sexualise and eroticise his body, but also to see him as vulnerable and perhaps victimised, and this is intensified in the overture. During this, Hall regularly apologises for his disorderliness and lack of time management, expressing that he hasn’t been able to sleep from partying all night, as though he is as much of a ‘mess’ as his stage — more on this below. In theory, this is a very effective decision, forcing us to sexualise what is stigmatised and wrongly reputed as a ‘dirty’, ‘contagious’ and 'dangerous' body, one inextricable from sexual practices from which we, the average ‘righteous’ and ‘civilised’ onlookers, see ourselves as distinctly removed. In this sense, we are also then part of this victimisation, we are abusers, and are thus more susceptible to realising the depth and presence of this stigma when it is revealed to us later on, having been involved in it in this way ourselves. However, in practice...the result is incredibly sloppy and ill-communicated.

Hall runs aimlessly around the house before the start of the performance, interacting, rather fecklessly, with every audience member in sight. Delivering to us nearly identical scripts, often consisting of some variant of "I haven't been to bed, have you?", Hall's interactions feel unnatural and forced, unnecessary and meaningless. Hall explained in the post-show Q&A that messiness was a recurrent theme in his life, that his relationship with mess was meaningful to him in the creation of this performance, and this is certainly perceptible in these disorderly interactions. However, whilst Hall seems to have a clear concept himself of what 'mess' means for him outside of the performance, his work here fails to communicate what 'messiness' means within it.

Of course, one could relate this to the narrative we are presented, which sees Nathaniel in a hectic cycle of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual escapades and vomiting, as well as to his lack of agency and autonomy, but this does not help our reading, either, for these items themselves are just as precariously integrated into the performance. There appears to be no structure to guide us through the material and to marry the material together. It is clear that the seeds are all there for a discourse on the condition and its stigmas, but no thread exists to sew these elements together. We only arrive at meaning through our own extensive research into Hall's perspective ourselves. This mess, for example, just feels as though we are being presented with a messy and disorderly party-going character for the sake of it, not because mess holds any symbolic and psychic significance to Hall and thus to the performance. Similarly, Hall explains that his reason for portraying his diagnosis by presenting a caricature of his nurse was that he finds it difficult to relieve receiving this diagnosis, but this does not translate into anything meaningful on stage; it is simply a comical and exaggerative representation. Hall confuses what is beneficial for him as a performer with what is beneficial to the performance itself, and this is a classic case where an overintellectualisation external to the live work clouds the artist's perspective on what the work is actually doing alone.

In this way, the narrative and content is left esoteric and beyond reach. Vomiting, drug use and parties are motifs that hold their own personal significance beyond our direct reading, and I would urge that Hall reconsider the personal symbolic significance of these aspects versus the significance, role and symbolism that they possess within the performance itself alone.

I found that every single time material hovered around the virus, Hall resorted to humour, in performing anything from a small subversive joke to the melodramatic representation of reliance upon and abuse of drugs, seeing an exaggerated overconsumption of these. After carefully setting up somewhat of a memorial service, having audience members sharing votive candles amongst themselves in the now dimly lit house whilst footage of the real and the dying is projected onto a screen he has set up on stage, Hall then wittily remarks that we surely all need a tissue after watching that: “I’d give you mine, but it’s covered in snot.” This time allotted for our grief is so short-lived because of this, but, more importantly, any poignancy it held is subverted by this abject humour. We have barely finished watching the footage, the house is still dark, we are still in this 'safe' space that is rarely offered in everyday life, one that is, as Hall himself purports, glazed over, ignored, inaccessible, and yet here we are moving swiftly on again and in such a brusque and nonchalant manner. Here, we see that Hall's 'comedy' directly takes as its subject our sorrow but also our therapy, our catharsis, and this is a thorny decision. It is a form of comic relief from something that we did not particularly want to be relieved from, something that Hall has just spent time engineering to deliberately make us feel this sadness. This sadness, this sense of tragedy should remain and should fuel our change, our anger, our resilience; it should not be so readily appeased, brushed aside; it is the ammunition and motivation for and the cause of our activism for which Hall is calling.

It is clear that Hall wants to offer himself and his public a form of therapy and that through this therapy we should surely be able to laugh and feel alleviated, but I am afraid that this therapy itself becomes the butt of an uncareful joke. This aforementioned melodramatic overconsumption, for example, is an aggressive and self-mocking overconsumption of HIV medication, with the added flavour of a bag of cocaine, and we are shown this right after Hall commends the advancements in relative pharmacology and medical science, namely with the conception of PrEP, which he recognises has revolutionised the life of those living, now unaffectedly, with the virus. Then, we have the “quiz” that aims to force us to reconsider the realistic probability of contracting the virus in various given circumstances. This is an excellent opportunity to actually re-educate and inform audience members — rather literally, but effectively nevertheless — and this is completely missed in Hall’s obvious and destructive ‘comedy’.

By expressing to us that this quiz, as many other suchlike elements, will be informative and educational and will destigmatise and reverse assumptions about the virus, Hall prepares us for an authentic and enlightening lesson — something we understand to be at the very heart of this performance. However, when this quiz turns out to be completely unserious and actually rather ridiculous, the humour lies, in fact, in the subversion of this seriousness and in the subversion of our assumption of the integrity and nature of the quiz. By extension, this section is humorous specifically because it makes a mockery of the seriousness of our education about these matters. The information we are given on the caricatural archetypes we are presented is ludicrous, outlandish and exaggerative, and this lack of realism eradicates any sense of the transferability of newfound skills and lessons we have acquired here into our 'real' and 'everyday' life. We learn nothing, we challenge nothing. Hall does not destigmatise this issue with humour; he mocks the process of destigmatising itself, and this is most contradictory to his aims. And this is without mentioning that this is a poorly executed and terribly repetitive scene, regardless of its intent.

Whilst I understand that this is a difficult territory for Hall, a profound performance about HIV should, quite obviously, be able to demonstrate that it considers HIV in a profound manner. I do not think this performance does. Hall fails to filter out what is unnecessary and unhelpful in making a sound, well-structured and articulate performance in favour of what he finds of personal interest and significance. Funny though it is, for example, what relevance to the play’s cause, aims and messages has calling a female-identifying audience member on stage to enact Nathaniel’s imaginary life with a wife and child, a gross extension of what is an otherwise negligible moment in the play — Nathaniel acknowledging a friendly girl at the school prom? This has nothing to do with the principal narrative and focus and yet consumes an enormous chunk of our time. Was this particular display comedic in itself? Yes, the audience member did wonderfully, and Hall proved himself as an effective semi-extemporaneous performer, having organised the actions they would do together wonderfully, and manoeuvred the unexpected obstacles presented by this audience member emphatically well. But did it progress our understanding of Nathaniel’s character, let alone of the play itself? No. Unnecessary, time-consuming and subtractive.

I mentioned above that Hall infiltrates the house and interacts with the audience prior to the start of the show, and this is one example of the consistent use of metatheatrical techniques in this performance. This metatheatricality works against Hall. The aim, of course, as with these direct interactions, is to create a direct relationship with the audience so that they may recognise, better identify with and have access to the personal material Hall is presenting to us. This is a classic misunderstanding of metatheatre and its effects, as the only effect metatheatre can have is to distance the audience from the work in causing them to become distinctly aware of themselves, the space, their body, the body of the Other, and their role and function as an audience member who is conspicuously, and now consciously, watching a performance. The audience member does not become intensely engaged in the performance but intensely removed from it via their chronic self-awareness.

Moreover, Hall actually insults his audience at the beginning of the performance, claiming them to be ‘judgemental bastards’. Very clever and formulaic contexts have to be conceived in order to make such insults feel 1) congruous, 2) welcomed, and 3) humorous. This context was not set up for us at all. Furthermore: as stated above, Hall regurgitates a variant of the same phrase to every audience member, meaning that his interactions are far too similar and unparticularised, which allows for a total obliteration of any intimacy and specialness or uniqueness we would have felt in the interactions we had with him. Clearly, Hall has not considered carefully enough what relationship he wants with his audience and what role they ought to play. This is without considering the agency he gives his audience in creating such an open environment — which would explain the consistent unsolicited shouting out and interjections from audience members in moments where audience interaction/participation was not desired. If the audience had comprised even more spirited individuals, these interjections could have been dire.

More significantly, however, as well as demonstrating that Hall has not considered the function, role, effects and form of his metatheatrical techniques, constant references throughout to this being a performance, especially paired with his caricatural and rather exaggerative acting style, make for a stunting effect on our emotional response to the performance. We are so vehemently and deliberately forced away from feeling and sentiment, reminded of the artificiality of the space and of the performance, reminded that this is all just an act, and yet the desired outcome of this performance is somehow to force to feel, to be moved, to be incentivised?! The emotional response should be our catalyst for our desire for change, and it is not instrumentalised correctly or appropriately at all. And this is without mentioning that this performance is taking place in the UK, a country that has a particularly sterile yet serious cultural relationship with death. This relationship must be considered carefully, meticulously and sensitively when opening discourse on the deceased, especially on those that lost their lives in conditions such as those during the AIDS crisis.

As a performer, Hall’s energy is faultless. He has an endearing onstage persona, but his caricatures and robotic writing style fictionalise his work to such a degree that it becomes inaccessible — emotionally and intellectually — and this is in direct opposition to his chosen metatheatrical performance style. With the incessant motifs of vomiting and drug abuse, with the time-consuming and needless wardrobe change sequences, with the excessive focus on incongruous humour, and with a style that ranges from third-person narratives to verse to caricatural re[-]presentation, the overall legibility of this performance is simply…nonexistent. A shambolic, confused and convoluted performance, however humorous or endearing sections may be.

“A performance falling extremely far from its aims, inarticulate and unsure of its rhetoric.”


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