Sydney Festival Review: Institute provides a poignant look at mental illness (Performances until 28 January)

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘wrestling with their inner demons’ – you may even know someone who has. In Institute, English physical theatre company, Gecko, has taken that idea and turned it inside out, giving us a powerful and beautiful physical representation of the inner workings of the human mind.

Institute does not follow an obvious narrative path, but there are clues along the way as to what is taking (and has taken) place. We meet Martin and Daniel, two men who should be in the prime of their lives, apparently crippled by mental anguish. They are under the care of Karl and Louis, and together the four men push through their ailments, wrestling memories into submission and thoughts back into familiar patterns.

Along the way, the show explores a number of threads, including how men interact with one another and show support when times are tough. For this reviewer, the most profound tenet captured by Institute is about caring for the carer. People who care for others, particularly those struggling with mental illness, carry a tremendous burden and one which often goes unnoticed. It can be difficult for them to ask for help themselves (as we see with the character of Louis), leading them down their own destructive path. Gecko have handled this issue with obvious sensitivity.

Creator Amit Lahav’s vision for this piece has been superbly realised by set designer Rhys Jarman. Filing cabinets that tower over the stage like city buildings surrounding a public square. They are cold, metal units, imposing and harsh. Within them appear to be the memories of many lifetimes, appropriately filed away so as not to interfere with everyday life. As the piece progresses, the drawers of the cabinets become windows into internal worlds. As Daniel slides open a draw, his face is illuminated from below. As he flips through the vertical files contained within the drawer, accompanied by that familiar sounding screech of metal on metal, his memories are thrown up at him like movie scenes. The light on his face flickers in the way of a TV screen, and the voices from below give us glimpses into what he sees – a prestigious award, a surprise birthday, childish play, a lover.

At other times, the whole front panel of the filing cabinet gives way to release a vignette – a romantic restaurant table for two, an office desk, a hospital room. The sets and accompanying props are in many ways quite realistic, even if their usage is not, with the actors propelling themselves on, over and under in a series of hypnotic routines.

Chris Swain’s lighting design (again developed in partnership with Lahav) is first class. From the pulsing indicator lights that adorn the cabinets to the blinding spotlights that freeze the actors in place, every element of the design is intended to trigger an innate, emotional response. Particularly intriguing are the small, hand-held lights resembling electric bar heaters that are manipulated by the actors, creating a stage within a stage upon which one character or another must wrestle with their inner demons while the support crew looks on.

Which brings us to said actors (Lahav, Chris Evans, Ryen Perkins-Gangnes and Francois Testory), all of whom deliver commanding, athletic performances. The unison work is fantastic, and a real highlight. This is a highly tuned, exquisite ensemble, performing with masculine energy, despite the sensitivity of the subject matter. They are also vocally dynamic, with even the simplest of breaths exuding great meaning.

There is layer upon layer of meaning in this show and it is clear that no choice has been made by accident. For example, while Martin and Daniel are Englishmen, the medical staff speak in German and French. There are enough phrases and words to allow for some discernment of the action taking place, but ultimately they are speaking a different language – in much the same way the medical terminology and jargon espoused by practitioners can leave many of us scratching our heads.

Another intriguing decision is to dress the actors in business suits. Not the most flexible of garments for physical theatre performers to carry out their work in! But when viewed as another layer of meaning, the suit represents male success. It is the garb worn by decision makers, money makers and those commanding attention. It is also restrictive and confining.

A significant portion of the show is set to music, making Institute as much a modern dance piece as it is theatrical. The many choreographed sequences are set to the perfect balance of original music (by Dave Price) and classic tunes. The rendered soundtrack demonstrates a clear understanding of the power music has to illicit memories and emotion.

Because of this, there is no one, single way to interpret Institute, and you may find yourself, as I did, struggling to grasp the meaning behind some sections. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – it leaves you free to just marvel at the incredible physical stamina of the performers and the beauty of the art they are making.


Institute is playing at the Seymour Centre until 28th January. For tickets, go here. The reviewer attended opening night on Wednesday 25th January. Photos by Prudence Upton.


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