Institute, The Place

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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.

 

The Nutcracker, Nuffield Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As Chris Thorpe acknowledged while discussing Northern Stage’s Christmas show, there is something about this time of year that feels intimately tied up with stories. Whether it is fairytales, stories of Santa or the tale of the nativity itself, the festive season is drenched in narrative. The story chosen for this year’s family show at the Nuffield Theatre is one so familiar that it has become part of the cultural fabric of Christmas, but the creative team have approached it from a slightly less familiar angle. A play with songs rather than the well known ballet, this is a Nutcracker with no Sugarplum Fairy and rather more back story, taking its lead from ETA Hoffman’s original tale.

Unfortunately, the story is the very element that lets this production down. Here, young Clara’s journey into the Land of Sweets and the central battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King occupy only a fraction of the stage time, the greater portion of which is taken up by exposition and scene-setting. The darker elements of Hoffman’s short story are welcome antidotes to what can be a queasily saccharine tale, but their incorporation into Hattie Naylor and Paul Dodgson’s script is decidedly laboured. We find out plenty about the curse of the Nutcracker and how he came to be the enemy of the wicked Mouse King, but all in a series of scenes that play out like an extended prologue. The first act ends beautifully, with an image to send chills down the spines of the children in the audience, but there is a niggling feeling that it is only just getting to the heart of the narrative.

This adaptation is also one that suffers from something of an identity crisis. The conventions of audience interaction are called upon early on, as the performers enter through the auditorium and talk to the kids on the way, but from this point onwards the piece is torn between fourth wall storytelling and pantomime style involvement. The narrator figure is an odd fit with the rest of the show, while the recruiting of the audience to hurl foam balls during the battle scene – while undeniably great fun – jars awkwardly with the action that has preceded it. Neither simple storytelling exercise nor riotous panto romp, The Nutcracker wants to be both at once, but struggles to knit the two genres successfully together.

There is, however, a fair sprinkling of magic in Blanche McIntyre’s production. The opening scene is a delight, pulling out all the tricks of the stage to establish a mood of enchantment and wide-eyed wonder, while raising several gasps from its young audience in the process. These moments of dazzled awe are the most rewarding, reminding adults as well as children just how magical theatre can be. Rhys Jarman’s design does a lot of the legwork, offering a series of charming transformations, while the cast bring an infectious energy to the range of roles they are asked to adopt throughout the twisting narrative.

The production is at its best when playful, whether that is the deliciously hammed up villainy of the Mouse King or the cheekily self-aware conclusion. At the end, the characters leave us deliberately in doubt about the nature of what we have seen, embracing the more uncertain and dreamlike qualities of Hoffman’s tale. Implicit in this ending is a question about stories themselves – why we tell them, what they mean to us, and when they become real. It is only a shame that it takes this long for the storytelling to come into its own.