The note on the door reads ‘KEY UNDER DOORMAT. After letting myself into the house, I hesitate. Do I put key in my pocket? This seems too intimate; instead I place it on the dresser in the entranceway next to a neat stack of phonebooks and mail. Leaving my bag and umbrella in the hall, I begin my exploration of the house.
This is the beginning of my encounter with Home, an immersive performance devised by Brienna Macnish in association with Hothouse Theatre for Next Wave festival. Made for an audience of one, the piece takes place inside the house of Marian Neal, an elderly resident of Kensington, a suburb in Melbourne’s inner north. Home was developed from a series of interviews Macnish undertook with local elderly residents on their relationships to their homes and their experiences of aging, and eventually focused on her conversations with Marian. The work is an intimate portrayal of a single person’s life that signals greater human drama – the physical realities of aging, the tragedy of losing a partner and the prospect of one day having to give up the home you’ve made for yourself. Despite these grand themes, its greatest strength is in concentrating on the individual rather than forcing the universal. The staged generosity of being welcomed into a stranger’s home has the effect of destabilising the anticipated critical encounter. Instead it leaves the viewer open to the vicissitudes of emotion.
The audio on my headset begins as I hesitantly start my exploration. It’s a recorded interview with Marian. Her voice guides me throughout the house, pointing out her favourite belongings – the chair where she works on her sewing, a tapestry made by her mother, the piano her first husband gave her, the shredder she bought to help prepare for when her children would eventually have to clear the house when she is gone.
Initially, it feels awkward and intrusive to be in a stranger’s house alone; but Marian speaks with such humour and generosity that I start to feel welcome. In the kitchen there’s a tray of biscuits in the oven, and I’m invited to sit and make a cup of tea. There is warmth in her voice as Marian describes how to make her late husband’s favourite meal, the first she ever made him. I look around the room at clusters of objects – magnets on the fridge, dog bowls in the laundry, a man’s hat on a bookshelf. Then, as she begins to tell of his decline, his move to a nursing home, the indignity of losing control of one’s body, and then his eventual passing, tears well in my eyes. By the time she is done telling her story I am sitting alone at her kitchen table, weeping openly.
After the interview phase of development Macnish then spent hours talking with Marian, and together they made a series of small cross-stitch embroideries sewn with phrases which captured sentiments from her interviews with other elderly people. They’re displayed on the sideboard in Marian’s kitchen and read “carry me out in a box”, “our home became a burden”, and “I always thought I’d go first”. Their intention is to subvert the cliché of the cross-stitch standard “Home Sweet Home” but they are the only element of the work that strikes an unnecessarily sentimental tone. Their placement in the house among Marian’s own possessions seems like an incursion, especially when it feels like I am already engaged in eavesdropping.
The sentiments the embroidered slogans conveyed – stoicism, resignation, nostalgia, grief – are captured more compellingly in the spoken narrative, and disperse the feeling ofan intimate conversation between two people. Macnish’s voice can’t be heard on the audio track, but her presence is sensed by the tone with which Marian addresses her, one shaped by the many quiet hours spent needleworking together. In the artist’s absence, the warmth and trust in Marian’s voice is redirected at the audience member. My experience of the work recalled my own long kitchen chats with my mother and my grandmothers, the first meal I cooked for my partner and the thought that after growing old together we’d have to consider whether or not to stay in our home, if we had a choice.
Where Home is most successful is in presenting a living portrait of a real woman, whose personal triumphs and heartbreaks are an analogue for the same tragedies that will befall all of us as we age. The emotional potency of the work is in this play between the honesty and generosity of a stranger telling her personal story, and the familiarity of a universal human narrative. This is the most intimate interpretation of the festival’s theme of New Grand Narrative and in many ways is the most emotionally potent. In its quiet resistance to the expected encounter, and in its insistence on the 1-1 scale of a single viewer listening to the voice of a single subject, it compels the viewer to radical empathy.
After rinsing my tea cup, finding a tissue and retrieving the house key from its place on the dresser, I emerge from the house and thank the invigilator in a choked voice. You’re not the only one, she smiles when she sees I’m holding back tears. As I close the front gate behind me, I retrieve my phone from my pocket to return a missed call from my grandmother.
Home was presented as part of Next Wave Festival 2014 between 1-11th May. For more information about Text Camp, Next Wave’s arts writing mentorship programme, visit the Next Wave Festival website.