'Buildings tell stories': how the housing crisis inspired an Edinburgh show

When Geoff Sobelle went to lay a new kitchen floor, the theatremaker found the foundations of a new show. Pulling up the linoleum tiling, he uncovered another layer of linoleum. Beneath that, another still. “A linoleum club sandwich,” he laughs over a bread-heavy breakfast in the Ruhr, where he is performing at a German arts festival. “It was like an archaeological dig site – but just really banal.”

By the time he had finished stripping the room, he had seen his home’s history like stripes of sedimentary rock. “My house is my home, but it was someone else’s before that,” he stresses. “We share spaces in ways we don’t even see.”

Home, which is staged later this month at the Edinburgh international festival, is built around that idea. On the stage, a typical two-up, two-down house fills up with all its previous occupants at once. They line up at the fridge to swig juice from the carton and spin from shower to sink to stints on the toilet in a cyclone of ablutions. It makes for a crowded house – a comment on cramped city living and the ubiquity of urban lives.

Housing, as Sobelle knows well, is “a hot-button issue”. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, an area with an alarming rate of gentrification, but that is just one element of a global issue. By 2025, it is estimated that 1.6 billion people will live in substandard housing.

Given that, Home takes a light touch: it is a theatrical meditation on human habitation. Sobelle’s sister, a literature professor, specialises in “architecture as a form of narrative; the way buildings tell stories”. Inspired by her work, Home is a loose triptych in which Sobelle builds a basic structure, single-handedly, then moves in with actors from his theatre company and, most intriguingly, invites the audience to come up and make themselves at home, too. “It’s an illusion of a house,” he says. “Putting house and home together is always an illusion. It’s a dream.”

Cyclone of ablutions … the overpopulated bathroom in Sobelle’s Home. Photograph: Hillarie Jason

A fringe stalwart, Sobelle has been coming to Edinburgh on and off for 20 years and has scored a string of sleeper hits along the way. The first was a silent-film spoof, All Wear Bowlers, in which two well-dressed wastrels – part Laurel and Hardy, part Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – were spat out of a screen and on to the stage.

A graduate of Jacques Lecoq’s school in Paris, Sobelle combines clowning and illusion. “Comedy is the highest order of art, because it has to encompass tragedy or it’s not funny,” he says. He cites Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin as personal heroes. “You’re uplifted, but not in a saccharine way. You see all these truths of life, big and small, in their routines. In allowing us that, clowning is like the greatest sacrifice.”

His work tends to tease magic out of mundane reality, whether an office overtaken by nature in Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl or, in The Object Lesson, boxes of old junk packed for storage that contain the entirety of a man’s life.

In Home, he has added music to the mix. The US singer-songwriter Elvis Perkins (the son of the Psycho actor Anthony Perkins and the photographer Berry Berenson) floats through the show in a white suit and a wide-rimmed hat, playing plaintive folk songs. Sobelle and Perkins, both in their early 40s, were high school peers (and bandmates) in Los Angeles – a city that left a stain on each of them. “It’s built on make-believe,” Perkins says, his voice as soft as his songs. “It’s unreal.” Sobelle agrees; he sees LA as “a bit of a non-place, a city that shouldn’t be”.

Geoff Sobelle’s show Home

‘When he invites his audience up on stage, it is as if he makes a play by magic.’ Photograph: Hillarie Jason

They both moved away years ago and settled in New York. On stage, Perkins is almost a haunting presence, never entirely at home in the house. It reflects his own sense of rootlessness. “I don’t know if I really feel at home here, on this planet,” he reflects. “I’m not sure I know where to call home.” One of his lyrics, written on the way back from protesting at Standing Rock, spells out the point: “Your only home is in and out of your body.” “Even that is temporary,” he says. “Like any home.”

In a sense, home is where the art is for Sobelle and Perkins. Touring for most of the year, they hop between gigs and festivals. Perkins talks of “inhabiting” music, of songs as “an architecture of sorts”. Sobelle speaks similarly about theatre. “It’s just creating a hospitable environment for people to come together,” he says.

In his book The Forest and the Field, the theatremaker Chris Goode describes theatre as something you can live in – not only an art form, but also potentially a whole way of life. Sobelle’s show manages, briefly, to make that manifest. When he invites his audience on stage, steering them around the house with concealed instructions, it is as if he makes a play by magic. Guests greet each other like old friends and grab bottles out of cupboards. But there comes a point when it stops being a play and becomes a real party all of its own – with drinking, dancing and fancy dress.

“You know what?” Sobelle laughs again. “People always gravitate towards the kitchen. I love that. It’s not a real kitchen, but that’s just how people are at parties.”

Home is at King’s theatre, Edinburgh, from 22-26 August

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