HOME, Sydney Festival at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, 9-18 January 2019. Photography by Victor Frankowski
Geoff Sobelle enchanted Festival audiences at the Sydney Town Hall in 2016 with The Object Lesson, a discursive performance piece that turned the emptied-out interior into a massive storage unit. It was a spectacle of towering piles of boxes, crates and general domestic detritus with people sitting higgledy-piggledy in amongst it all, from which some were plucked to make salad or discuss the contents of their wallets. (I got to share with the audience six expired cards and other long-forgotten treasures, it was illuminating, and no, it wasn’t a set-up.)
Since then Sobelle has dreamed up another event for which an audience is not only necessary but integral. Home is also a surreal nightmare as he – joined by the rest of the company and his co-creators, one by one and in unpredictable ways – construct a two-storey house, from scratch before our very eyes.
Unlike The Object Lesson, however, Sobelle is not alone in this enterprise: Sophie Bortolussi, Ching Valdes-Aran, Justin Rose, Ayesha Jordan, Luke Whitefield and singer-instrumentalist (autoharp, 12-string guitar, harmonica) Elvis Perkins deserve naming. As do the mighty stage managers: Lisa McGinn and assistant Kevin Hanley.
From humble beginnings of a hinged timber frame and plastic sheeting, and somewhat comical illusions (performers appear and disappear, then pop up again somewhere else) Home draws its residents and the audience into an exploration of the meanings of house and home. It’s a potentially fascinating, profound subject – and if you fancy an elegant and wide-ranging scrutiny of the topic: Witold Rybczynski’s 1987 book, Home: A Short History of an Idea (Penguin) is available at BookDepository.com.
On stage at the Roslyn Packer, however, it’s a visual extravaganza where subtext is sacrificed to self indulgence. Frankly, watching a house being “built” in real(ish) time is a novelty for ten minutes. After that it’s a bit like watching paint dry, which is ironic as it’s just about the only thing that doesn’t happen. On the other hand, Home has been described as “magical”, so who knows.
The second half of the 110 minutes running time is also entertaining and thought provoking for the first ten minutes when members of the audience are cajoled onto the stage to host, guest and otherwise participate in a party. Again, after the novelty wears off it quickly becomes the second trick of a two-trick outing.
Without doubt, there are beautiful, funny and insightful vignettes. The set and lighting (Steven Dufala and Christopher Kuhl) are excellent and director Lee Sunday Evans maintains extraordinary order and focus on the action. The range of a house’s life is there, from birth (a rolled up blanket tenderly rocked in an audience member’s arms) to death and the entry of The Grim Reaper.
Generations and social classes occupy its bedroom, bathroom, study, kitchen and dining room simultaneously and unknowingly and the parade of everyday humanity is sometimes amusing and almost affecting. Almost. In the end, it feels like a cheap trick rather than a clever one to have audience members carry the action for so long. “Moving and miraculous”? Not so much.