There’s an aura of dustiness at the opening of Institute. The edges of the stage, shrouded in a crepuscular gloom, are crowded with filing cabinets. Towering, oppressive, rusty brown. This space, designed by Rhys Jarman and Amit Lahav, is somewhere between a workplace, an archive and a Kafkaesque labyrinth of endless documentation. It looks at once humdrum and dystopian.
Gecko’s show, though, is anything but dusty. It might be crammed into this dingy, almost deathly setting, but its movement hums with life. Bodies leap, spin and fall through the space, limbs propelled with joy one moment and despair the next. The storytelling might be puzzling and opaque, but Institute‘s glimpses of the human condition – its ecstasy, its agony – are crystal clear.
It’s hard to say what precisely Institute is “about”. The title, perhaps, is a good place to start. The word “institute” suggests an organisation, a state body or company, somewhere strait-jacketed by rules and leaden with bureaucracy. But “institute” is also a verb: to introduce, to establish, to begin.
At first, we appear to be in a workplace – an unspecified institute of commerce. Its employees are two men: Martin (Lahav) and Daniel (Chris Evans). They make cheery colleagues, dancing around their desks while they carry out meaningless tasks and answer incessant telephone queries from their absent bosses. Yet there’s also a sinister undertow. At odd intervals, bright lights flash and sirens intervene. These men seem to be under surveillance, their office acquiring a tinge of the Orwellian. And those cabinets, which store far more than just files, seem to hold a perpetual, ominous allure for the men who organise them…
The longer the piece goes on, the more I begin to wonder whether we’re in another kind of institute: a hospital, perhaps a bizarre and unconventional psychiatric ward. The two protagonists, who at first simply seem to be grinding through the 9-to-5, are each troubled in their own way. Daniel, a (wannabe? one-time?) architect, is both driven and crippled by ambition. Proud, expectant voices echo from the filing cabinets, while he contorts his resistant body into desk-bound poses of industry. Martin, meanwhile, is driven wild by thwarted love, seemingly doomed to relive the same humiliating restaurant scene over and over and over.
It’s never entirely clear, though, what these haunting scenes represent. Are we seeing dreams, memories, or stunted desires? There are hints of group therapy, as Martin and Daniel link hands with their bosses-turned-carers (Ryen Perkins‐Gangnes and
François Testory) and move in a circle. But the two men who seem to be in charge here – speaking different languages, to amplify the confusion – have traumas of their own. One is increasingly ill and frail, stubbornly pushing away his pills in denial. The other is repeatedly dragged back to a startling nightmare – or perhaps a memory – in which a figure falls away into nothingness.
The sum of these different scenes is fragmented and sometimes bewildering, but never less than compelling. Both design and choreography offer endless surprises. Whole rooms – the desks of the workplace, a restaurant table and chairs for two – spring, fully formed, from the cabinets that line the stage. Jaunty sequences of movement quickly give way to the strange or unsettling. In the most striking of these tonal jolts, Lahav suddenly appears with long contraptions attached to his arms and legs, manipulated by the other performers like a gruesome human puppet. The recurring nightmare in which an unknown man falls suddenly backwards and out of sight, meanwhile, has something of real horror in it.
The invitation explicitly offered by Gecko in its marketing material is to “consider what it means to care”. This suggests one way to join the dots between the company’s disparate but captivating series of images. Sometimes care is physical support – arms to catch and hold up. Sometimes it is a struggle, a case of being cruel to be kind, as Martin and Daniel are forced to confront their demons. Sometimes it is love, which appears in the show under multiple guises. Sometimes it is simply being together, being there.
There’s also a question of what it means to care in a distinctly uncaring corporate environment, where individual human beings are little more than cogs and lives are filed away like inert documents. And then, later in the piece, Gecko raises the spectre of medical care – more relevant than ever in the light of NHS reform and privatisation. Institute is, unquestionably, more visceral than cerebral, but the thoughts and questions it prompts are vital nonetheless.