It is rare to come out of a theatre piece that you find both exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure, but that was my experience of Institute, the latest dance-theatre piece from Gecko, the pioneering company responsible forMissing and other innovative, hybrid shows developed over the last decade or more. Their shows have had national and international acclaim and are distinguished by a long development period and strong continuity of personnel involved, all under the leadership of Amit Lahav who has created, directed, choreographed, and acted in the six shows produced to date. Their style blends all elements of dance, sound track and theatre to create a series of arresting images that are intended to stimulate and mingle with the memory and imagination of the audience rather than express a traditional narrative plot-line.

The set is an open square space framed by high and uneven stacks of filing cabinets. There are four players and fragments of their lives are unvveiled gradually through both their own interactions and what is revealed from the walls of office cabinets. Lights flash, alarms sound, and drawers open. The first drawer plays sound fragments associated with the life of Daniel (Chris Evans), the first character to appear. Like all the players he is barefoot, dressed in crumpled office-clothes, and apparently a successful architect who is now blocked in his work. Other cabinets open up sections of set in a way reminiscent of a painting by Magritte in the surprising juxtapositions involved– an intimate restaurant table setting, a plexi-glass cell, office desks….the institutional setting of what we experience seems blurred between an architectural practice with alarming features drawn from Kafka, and an institution for the treatment of the mentally ill.

Gradually we piece together elements of character, if not of story. As well as Daniel, we meet Martin (Amit Lahav), who may be his colleague and appears to be in a state of psychological disintegration as a result of a failed relationship with a woman called Margaret: their romantic interactions are evoked as figments of memory and hallucination in a series of striking tableaus. As the seventy five minute piece progresses so Martin undergoes forms of restraint and therapy to free him of this obsession, which have moments of compelling beauty and pain about them.

Supervising Daniel and Martin are Carl (Ryen Perkins-Gangnes) and Louis (Francois Testory) who are engaged in trying to get them back to creative work but then turn out to have therapeutic needs of their own. Other minor characters make fleeting appearances including a repeated and arresting image high up at the back of the set of a patient falling backwards onto a bed. A programme note suggests that the overarching theme of the piece is the reality or absence in the modern world of the ability to care: ‘Are we losing our ability to read each other and therefore protect and care for one another?’

What we can certainly take away from this evening is a series of disorientating and affecting images and impressions, engaging all the senses, that linger long in the memory. Some of these images are highly painterly. I have mentioned Magritte, but there were points in which other artists came to mind, including a group dance with linked hands that evoked Matisse’s famous round-dance. There was a scene in which Martin is manipulated entirely by the other characters with caliper-like rods that stood out as an exceptional piece of physical improvisation. And perhaps the most moving sequence of all came towards the end when Louis, stripped to underwear, and confined to a transparent cell, tensed and twitched his body in spasms alongside a musical accompaniment of a musical drone and cries of anguish. This was an uncomfortable and moving as a looking at a painting by Francis Bacon, and reduced the audience to absolute stillness.

On the technical side there was high accomplishment all round. The eclectic soundtrack, the work of Dave Price and Nathan Johnson, matched the mood and style of each section with a fine mix of established standards, romantic or upbeat as required, with underscore and sound-effects that disconcerted expectations. The set, the work of Lahav and Rhys Jarman, was a tour de force of gradually revealed, multi-level complexities that never restricted the space needed for physical expression at its centre. The lighting by Lahav and Chris Swain, helped the audience concentrate on individual moments of grief or elation and played along with the ingenious surprises of the design.

However, there is a still a real question mark in my mind about the overall meaning of the evening. While not expecting or wanting traditional plotting, ‘message’ and character-development, it seems that a piece that sets out to confront the problem of mutual care and responsibility in modern life needs by definition to offer clearer moments ofconnection or fully explicated isolation if it is to capitalise on the extremely effective theatrical events and images that it has created. Otherwise these moments ultimately dissipate on the retina and fail to cohere as they deserve to. Sadly, I could not stay for the post-show discussion of the evening in which the actors might have explained away some of these difficulties. But ultimately a reviewer can only judge on the basis of what he sees, not with the benefit of explanatory hindsight. On that account the evening does not succeed in becoming more than the sum of its highly engaging parts.

This is not to detract from the work of the performers, whose physical stamina and inventiveness is hugely impressive. All four had moments of individual brilliance and then came together to display supple, collective empathy, joy and despair. Evans and Testory in particular stood out for the detail and inventiveness of their performances which produced moments of great vulnerability and tenderness. There was also a lot of visual humour scattered across the evening, though less so in the scripted sections. And perhaps that provides the key to further development of this piece. If the dialogue offered a little more clarification of meaning and interpretation and character relations, then the show as a whole would snap into the sharp focus that it ultimately lacks in its current form.

Three stars

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…