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 that a space can produce in its  occupants is the focus of physical theatre aces Gecko Theatre’s Institute, a work that perfectly illustrates with grace, poignancy, and fragility the effect of a severely institutional space on its defenceless 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, as well as 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, particularly affecting with François Testory’s frail authority figure, talking only in his native French, fighting 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. Practising what they preach, Gecko offer the opportunity to talk through the often difficult content discussed on stage with a charity after their performances, and even offer this on tour. Gecko also accept the critique levelled at Institute‘s exclusively male cast, and without acting defensively, explain in their notes that the original concept featured a female performer, and that during the devising process she often took on the traits of care-taking, and Gecko sought to defy this traditionally gendered portrayal of care, and so supplanted the part to explore ‘care mechanisms among men’.

Though a female dancer could develop, not detract from, an exploration of the way care is gendered and performed, particularly as a traditionally feminine trait, the decision offers a delicate, original, and oft-neglected look at the intersection – and often opposition – of tenderness and traditional virility. 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, 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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