Sydney Festival Review: Home Country is a cultural experience not to be missed (Performances through 22 January)

Urban Theatre Project’s Home Country is not so much a theatrical production as it is a full-bodied cultural experience, and it’s one not to be missed. Over three and a half hours of theatre, music and food, you are immersed into the worlds of others. It is a piece that challenges you to consider your own interactions with the assortment of lives that call Sydney home.

A multi-story carpark in the centre of Blacktown provides the setting for Home Country, and it is the perfect backdrop for the diverse stories that unfold. As the evening progresses, the audience is guided through the different levels of the carpark, hearing from groups of Blacktown locals about the meaning of ‘home’.

The stories are the creation of three Australian writers, each with a very distinct voice. Andrea James’ script for Blacktown Angels is funny and approachable, expertly hiding a dark thread below the laughs. Peter Polites Steps into Katouna is poetic and thoughtful, and plays with rich language and Greek myth. Rounding out the writerly trio is Gaele Sobott, whose’s tale of Zaphora and Ali follows a fairly realistic style, but is laced with politics, social commentary and current affairs. In their own ways, each writer asks us to consider more closely the lives around us. Who is the person we sit next to on the train every day? What challenges do they face? Where do they call home? This is ‘people watching’ on a whole new level!

Director, Rosie Dennis, has taken outdoor theatre to new heights (yes, somewhat literally) with Home Country. Rather than simply move the traditional theatrical convention of audience and stage to an outdoor space, Dennis and sound designer, James Brown, have utilised audio technology and unique staging to bring the three story arcs to life.

For example, Steps into Katouna is told entirely through recorded audio that is played to the audience through portable headphones, projected over a short-wave radio frequency. While his inner-most thoughts are fed into the audience’s ears, Pita goes about the business of preparing for work; he is early, so stops for a cigarette in the carpark.

In contrast, when Zaphora and Ali engage with one another over their lunch break, the audience witnesses this encounter from across the street. Headset microphones pick up the dialogue, making you feel like something of a voyeur.

Not only is the staging innovative, it is also practical: these two scenes play out simultaneously, to different halves of the audience. The headphones prevent noise from Zaphora and Ali’s conversation distracting from Pita’s actions, and vice-versa.

Lighting an outdoor performance is always tricky, particularly when the show spans a period of three and a half hours. Lighting designer, Fausto Brusamolino, keeps things relatively simple at first, allowing the natural light to do its work. As the sun sets, additional devices are brought into play, creating backdrops from the trees around the carpark and shadows that portent the stories to come. It is mindful, gentle work that avoids pulling attention away from the performers who are really the heart of the show.

Of the performers, it is hard to look past Billy McPherson (Uncle Cheeky) as the ‘star’ of the show. He truly inhabits the role, delivering his dialogue with a laid-back, jolly air. This is a character you want to sit down and have a yarn with. Uncle Cheeky’s journey is shadowed by Angel, a mysterious figure played well by Shakira Clanton, whose vocals are a real highlight. Danny Elacci (Ali) and Nancy Denis (Zaphora) are accomplished and entertaining; you genuinely believe you are watching real workmates – they could even be in your office. As Pita, Jonathan Nicholas has the most difficult task, reacting in silence to his inner monologue, which is played over the audience’s headphones. He brings a beautiful, physical stillness to the performance, and in no way tries to ‘overact’ the recollections.

Music, too, plays an important role in the production. There are live performances from hip hop artist Kween G, and Arabic duo Mahmmd Lelo and James Tawadros. The musicians remind us that songs exist in all cultures, and are often the tool used to pass on stories and legends from the past. Music is a powerful connector with emotion, and this is a factor used to great effect in this production.

There are so many facets to this production it is difficult to do the work justice in a short review. For example, Home Country is actually dinner and a show. Halfway through the action, guests are invited into a communal feast, sharing in the cuisine of the characters to whom they’ve been introduced. The menu was created by Helena Rosebery and is prepared onsite each night, with help from local eateries. The meal is a real highlight of the experience, and is best left as a surprise, suffice to say it fits perfectly within the program’s flow.

Ultimately, this is innovative, unique work that deserves to be seen. Little nuances, like segregating the audience based on colour (upon entry you are armed with either a red or blue stool), permeate Home Country, and you’ll no doubt find yourself reflecting on them for many days after. The impact is profound but not didactic; you will leave with a smile on your face.

Home Country is playing at the Colo Lane Car Park, Blacktown until 22nd January. To purchase tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended the performance on Friday 13th January.

Photo credit Joshua Morris