Bristol Old Vic – until 30 March 2019
Many of us will be all too aware of the 9-to-5 drudge that office life can encompass. Yet in Gecko’s Institute, a bewitching, bewildering work from one of Britain’s foremost physical theatre companies, the office becomes a place of both dream and nightmare, a Kafka-esque delve into a world of work that traps and loops, in its station of ambition and empty corporate speak.
Towering filing cabinets fill the stage, in Rhys Jarmans and Amit Lahav’s dominant design in which co-workers Martin (Artistic Director Lahav) and Daniel (Chris Evans) operate. But in its very sharply realised world, whole consciousness’ emerge out of the cabinets, and it becomes an imposing playground that symbolises both work and hospital, sinister chamber and red light drinking den.
Both men come to represent everyman, speaking an empty office spiel that represents nothing, a shield keeping colleagues at one removed. Opening a cabinet brings back memories of the past, for Martin a doomed dinner date in which he proposed to his beloved and Daniel, a set of happy memories, though ominously very much of the past.
In the UK men are three times more likely to take their own life than women, and this is a work that gradually emerges as a piece grappling with how to support men who store up their pain inside and communicate only in empty platitudes. The piece expands out with the introduction of two other men, Ryen Perkins-Gagnes and François Testory, potential psychiatrist, potential big brass, potentially Lords of misrule who prod, probe and appear to play tricks on the two office drudges. Eventually, though the question becomes who is looking after them. Chaos rules. The balance of office life placed in sharp contrast with the high balancing act of a mind in turmoil.
There is plenty to admire in Institute, Evans and Lahav soft-shoe shuffling around paperwork like an office MGM’S Kelly and O’Hare, or a breath-taking moment where Lahav is manipulated like a rod puppet by the other three. Gecko also know how to end a show with a bang, if their last work here The Weddinglifted the roof off the building with its frenzied climax, this ends with three men centre staged, bathed in a dusk red light, speaking perhaps of a tribal dance of free will or even an invocation to the Gods.
Yet the whole thing stays frustratingly just out of range. it’s refusal to give out answers means it remains an impressionistic nightmare that impresses more than it roots down. Like many of the men the piece focuses on, it leaves many of its audience just at arms-reach.
Institute plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 30 March