Review: Gecko’s Institute – Bristol Old Vic

Original Review for Broadway World UK

Gecko's Institute

Physical theatre full of aching truth and tactility

Theatre is physical: isolated from its spectacle and pageantry, theatre’s principal narrative tools are physical figures in a physical space, the effect of particular figures on the spaces they occupy and the effect of a space on its occupants. This is the focus of physical theatre aces Gecko Theatre’s Institute, a work that perfectly illustrates with grace, poignancy, and fragility the effect of an institutional space on its occupants.

Artistic Director, deviser, and dancer Amit Lahav envisions an industrial dystopia that crystallises as set designer Rhys Jarman’s greyed and glowering citadel of desks and towering drawers. Alight with Chris Swain’s versatile lighting and singing with Dave Price’s lyrical original score and the electric dissonance of Nathan Johnson’s sound design, it’s a transcendent stage for a set of devised, genre-defying vignettes.

Though the nature of the institute – for sanctuary or incarceration, as a vision of an austere future or a vestige of an afflicted past – is strategically vague, and the narrative structurally nonlinear, the physical and psychological effects that institutionalisation elicits are evocative and visceral. With flashing lights and electronic strikes echoing through the space and inflicting the strict structure and invasive feel of the Institute on the spectator and occupant alike, it’s physical theatre that forces itself to be felt.

Though its epithet is the very antithesis, physical theatre often feels figurative – figures, actions, and configurations that suggest a thought, action or feeling other than what they actually are – yet Gecko’s choreography is full of aching truth and tactility. Along with agile counterpoises and tightly choreographed patterns, there’s a playful vignette featuring Lahav and a perpetually fretful Chris Evans pilfering cigarettes and touches fraught with tacit affection. As the grip of the place, tightens its fist on its defenceless occupants, the choreography fractures to reveal a frailer physicality, as the counterpoises collapse, the vignettes fall into frantic confrontations and farcical echoes of each other, and even the softest of touches are flinched from.

Even with a choreographic texture that is forged and fractured with such complexity, it’s touch that is Gecko’s finest act. With all its lingering and longing illustrated and felt physically, language is scarce and itself a feature of the isolation the institute inflicts, as François Testory’s frail authority figure, talking only in his native French, fights against the eager touch and affection of Ryen Perkins-Gangnes.

There’s a grace and fragility to Gecko’s approach to the play’s conception and its choreography. The company practise what they preach, with a charity there to accompany their performances and offer information to those affected by its themes. Gecko also accept the criticism that an all-male cast rightfully attracts, and note in their programme that the performance originally featured a female performer that fell all too naturally into the role of caretaker, and that the company ‘replaced the female role with a fourth male performer to explore care mechanisms’ among men.

Though a female performer might augment rather than complicate Gecko’s argument that mechanisms of care are imagined as particular forms of masculine and feminine performance, the replacement offers a compelling and original focus on masculine care. With this focus, the finale, with the actors finally dancing as a unified fraternity, is an uplifting act of defiance against the conflict that the institute, with its suffocating structure and enforced isolation, forces upon them.

Gecko are paragons of physical theatre, choreographing with agility, grace, and tactility, but it’s physical theatre that’s thoughtful and fragile and articulate, too. Theatre is physical, yet as Gecko prove, the effect of a place, even if frightful or neglectful, is an inferior force to the effect that we all, gifted with the capacity to care, can have on each other.

Bristol Old Vic – 27th March 2019; invited to review for Broadway World UK; cast: Amit Lahav, Chris Evans, François Testoryz & Ryen Perkins-Gangnes; image: Richard Haughton; Gecko’s Institute

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