What better way to symbolise your favourable turn in fortune than with adorable bunnies, the sign of good luck? Comedian Hannah Gadsby has marked her return to the Sydney Opera House with four rabbits across the stage, though you will probably first notice the one in the Joan Sutherland theatre that functions as a lantern, a beacon of hope.
Of course, none of these rabbits are alive, which turns out to be apt, given the desecration of one unlucky bunny that hopped into the middle of the performer’s toxic relationship with an ex she struggled to shake off and another that emits a high-pitched squeal of terror as it crosses paths with Gadsby, her new wife and producer, Jenney Shamash, and their two dogs, Douglas and Jasper, on an outdoor stroll.
Trauma is in store only for the little furry introduced species in Gadsby’s excellent new show, Body of Work. The comedian herself, who shot to fame in the United States when her 2017 show, Nanette, aired on Netflix in 2018 – embedding deeply affecting stories of violence, homophobia and shame at the tail end of that laser-sharp comedy set – has opted here for a feel-good show, “a bit of ta-dah”, and what a joy it is.
Gadsby and Shamash married in January, and Gadsby announced Shamash to her fans via Instagram in April. Sure, Body of Work is partly a love story; there’s even a cute proposal anecdote. But as she inelegantly informs Love Actually director Richard Curtis, unaware of exactly who he is, she hates romantic comedy.
Gadsby doesn’t go for easy sentimentality, even while we gain insight into her loving relationship. We learn the couple ordered a shark cake, “to fuck with the Christian baker”, and that they didn’t marry for love – they already had that – but rather for the “sweet, sweet, sweet administrative privilege” that straight people enjoy.
Gadsby does not miss a beat. A few years ago, she contemplated giving up standup comedy, given her career had been built on self-deprecation, which was “not humility, it’s humiliation”. What a loss her retirement would have been: having told her story and eschewed any place on the margins to which growing up in Bible belt north-west Tasmania might have otherwise relegated her, Gadsby has become a consummate storyteller, building on what she has already generously revealed of herself.
The term comedian kind of sells her skills short. She doesn’t simply create tension then knock it down to make us laugh. When she tells her stories, we can almost see the players in her anecdotes materialise before us. We get affectionately told stories about Gadsby’s parents and the hilarious dynamic between them, and how her mum has dubbed Gadsby’s backpack-wearing partner “Dora the explorer” and approves of Shamash with the high accolade she is “not a dickhead”.
In Gadsby’s 2019 show, Douglas, likewise streamed on Netflix the following year, she revealed her diagnosis of high-functioning autism. Now we get an insight into how she and her partner, who she calls “Jenno” and whom she met shortly after the diagnosis, creatively deal with occasions when Gadsby feels overstimulated.
Of course, there’s a man, a podcast-making “bro”, who informs Gadsby “you’re not real autistic” because she can “read social cues”. Gadsby has lost none of her relish for skewering egotistical straight white men: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Leonardo DiCaprio finally getting an Oscar “for being mauled by a bear” in The Revenant.
And yes, she addresses her recent Instagram shoutout to Netflix boss Ted Sarandos, who had namechecked Gadsby’s specials on the streaming service as justification for commissioning Dave Chappelle’s specials in which the US comedian repeatedly maligns transgender people.
“Fuck you and your amoral algorithm cult,” Gadsby posted. “I do shits with more backbone than you. That’s just a joke! I definitely didn’t cross a line because you just told the world there isn’t one.”
“I bit the hand that fed me,” Gadsby admits now, reflecting on how the spat made global news, but spun comedy gold when the story was translated by Russian news services and back into English as “I do shits with more tenacity than you”.
Gadsby says she was ill-prepared for fame – her endearing reaction to a spot of gift-giving by Jodie Foster illustrating her naiveté – but the unique slant she has on the world combined with the material comfort of her success and luxury of time indicates she could continue to deliver a work this strong every couple of years if she desires. She certainly has the tenacity.
• Hannah Gadsby’s Body of Work is at the Sydney Opera House with two shows each on 11 and 12 December, ahead of a tour of Europe, the UK, Canada, the US and New Zealand, with performances at Arts Centre Melbourne on 26 and 28 August and 11 September 2022.