The first text arrives at 10am on a Monday. “HELLO HELLO HELLO.” Every day for a week, at roughly around the same time each day, I get a text from the name BertNasi, containing a brief anecdote (“This voice note was recorded on top of a hill. This is why you can hear wind.”) and Vimeo link. The videos are brief — the longest is around six minutes, but they average out at around two — and involve some type of remote conversation between the two theatremakers, often punctuated with interjections from partners or relatives. A black screen (sometimes, as a treat, we get a few pictures of rainy Paris, or Nasi’s Nan’s house, or baby pictures) with subtitled text running across it. I watch the first four when they come in, parcelled out into neat segments across my week, and then life gets in the way and I watch the last three in one embarrassed gulp on the final day — so goes the perils of digital theatre making when you can’t fully control how your audience watches your work.
I have grown increasingly fond of voice notes over the past year — a low commitment form of communicating with friends in a way that feels more controllable and less intrusive than a phone call, but still intimate. I like to hear the breath in my ear, the tangents, the stuttering over certain words, the laughter. HELLO, although containing occasional visuals, has the energy of a series of voice notes, sent to you by a friend. We rarely see Bert and Nasi’s faces either in any of the videos, which I like — there is something more intimate about just the voice — seeing their familiar faces pixelated on a screen would feel like some awful facsimile of the real thing. Digital theatre is a tricky thing at the best of times, but particularly so with Bert and Nasi — I am always so aware of the audience during the duo’s live shows — the way they will gleefully cackle when Bert moons Nasi, or the collective intake of breath as Nasi holds a plate outstretched on top of a ladder, or the awkward chuckles when some poor sod in the audience is asked to safekeep a hammer. It is a cliche, perhaps, to say that an artist’s work feels “live”, but Bert and Nasi’s work is so much about how power shifts between two people when there are others in a room with them, watching, and their work revels so much in that nebulous space between those on stage and those in the audience, that the black screen feels voidish.
The conversations the two have are full of half-formed thoughts, aborted conversations and ideas, punctuated with little interjections from life itself — a baby fussing, or a conversation with Nasi’s mum, or the sound of the kettle boiling. They muse about maybe making a show. I like seeing (hearing?) this — the early parts of feeling out a concept, chucking out ideas half-heartedly when there is no guarantee that said imaginary show can go on. There is an air of resignation underlying it — phone reception cuts out, they can’t hear each other, and at one point Nasi shouts about how tired he is of the whole thing. If it feels slight, like a shadow of their live work, which so often feels so present, so bodily in its brashness and tenderness, then I suppose that it is working, because it makes me miss them, and it makes me miss theatre. It doesn’t ever feel like they fully embed themselves into this new digital form. There is a palpable sense of purgatory, of waiting for the day when they can launch themselves across a bare stage again. It’s a stop gap, maybe. A reminder. A bookmark, like the one Bert bought for Nasi. They are constantly interrupted, or held up, or go on tangents. Life gets in the way of making the show. Life becomes the most intriguing part of HELLO, the moments rising up at the sides of the conversations, fragments of something the audience are not fully privy to.
This is not a review in the same way that HELLO is not really a show (the PR email I received described it as “a little experiment”) — both this and the piece are, I think, more about keeping some type of record, creating something which marks a particular, peculiar point in time whilst also attempting to hold and look forward, tentative but hopeful for a future when all these half-formed thoughts might be realised in some full-fronted glory. The final episode ends with their faces, at last, waving to the camera. In different countries and separated by a thin black bar on screen, they turn, a little awkwardly, to face each other. It is a moment that feels reminiscent of their show The End, and for a moment, it is really quite moving. Then, it ends, and they are gone, and I am left looking at my own reflection once more.
HELLO is available to book until 10am on Sunday 14th March 2021, tickets via Camden People’s Theatre.