The Object Lesson

Sydney Town Hall, January 7


Geoff Sobelle in the Sydney Town Hall. Photo: Nic Walker, Sydney Morning Herald

Geoff Sobelle’s absurdist performance installation The Object Lesson is by turns intriguing, whimsical, gently amusing, infuriating, tedious and utterly magical.

First staged by the American actor and illusionist in Philadelphia in 2013, with direction by David Neumann, set design by Steven Dufala, lighting by Christopher Kuhl and sound by Nick Kourtides, it won the top prize at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and had a successful New York season later that year. Now it’s here as part of the Sydney Festival.

Entering the main ballroom at the Sydney Town Hall, you find yourself in a newly created space framed by towering walls of cardboard boxes, many of them labelled, while other boxes are scattered around the room. Filled with all kinds of stuff – toys, clothes, lamps and bric-a-brac – you are invited to rifle through them as a prologue to the main act.

When Sobelle first presented The Object Lesson, he was moving house and put his own belongings into the boxes. Here, they have come from op shops and donations.

Gradually, the audience finds somewhere to sit, some choosing the stage, others perching on boxes marked “sit on me”. Then Sobelle emerges from the crowd in well-worn brown suit and bare feet and begins unpacking furniture from boxes to form a small room with carpet, big leather armchair, plant and an old-fashioned gramophone, which isn’t quite what it seems.

Using a small tape machine, he records seemingly random comments, which then become a fairly aimless two-way conversation on a phone. Scrambling up the mountain of boxes, he extracts a letter, recalling a student holiday in France, and some traffic lights, which feature in a rambling story. He shares bread and wine. He gets two audience members to go through their wallets. My friend and colleague Diana Simmonds was one of those chosen on opening night and injected some wry humour into her account. Read Diana’s review here:

While some in the audience seemed fascinated, to me it all felt fairly random, a little boring, and kind of pointless. Maybe that was the point. But I have to admit it was trying my patience.

And then Sobelle does a wonderful thing with ice skates, salad and a lady plucked from the audience. I don’t want to give too much away but from there, I was hooked.

The final sequence is magical, quite literally, as Sobelle takes us on a journey from cradle to grave, pulling all manner of things from an apparently bottomless box that looked empty when he set it on the stool.

It’s an extraordinary coup de theatre. Finally, with a mountain of life’s detritus tossed onto the floor in front of him, the lights go out and we are left to ponder the stuff we accumulate, how much of it we actually need, the memories that objects hold for us, and whether/when/how to let things go. As Sobelle says: “there’s a thin line between vintage and crap.”

The Object Lesson is almost completely sold out. However, an extra performance on Sunday January 10 at 8pm is now on sale: or 1300 856 876

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