I’m ushered through the breeze-block warren of tunnels under Warwick Arts Centre to emerge, eyes unadjusted, onto a darkened stage filled with two separate worlds. One is the home of Lily, a woman whose soul is decaying, the other is a doctor-cum-scientist’s realm that looks like a lair for a twenty-first century Dr Faustus, complete with eerie flashing lights and a giant X-ray machine. A man is wandering around above my head brandishing some puppets. Forget the performance, the tech rehearsal is already challenging my sense of place and time.
This is Missing, a play devised and performed by physical theatre company Gecko, which uses dance, puppetry and theatre in a stimulating combination, and which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Originating from a lecture seen in the US by Missing’s Director (and Co-Founder of Gecko) Amit Lahav on the science of the soul, Missing is sure to delve into the more problematic aspects of what it is to be human.
Belief in a soul is one of the few shared beliefs spanning all human cultures. To play around with this idea onstage and presumably question our inability to see what’s ‘missing’ in our lives can only set off some profound questions. It’s no wonder Ellie Hartwell, General Manager of Gecko, describes Missing as “probably our most ambitious show”.
Physical theatre is a good choice of medium for putting across such ambitious ideas; Hartwell believes that it “allows you to be slightly more abstract,” adding more layers of meaning and nuance than is possible with traditional spoken word theatre. For concepts like a decaying soul, getting a bodily reaction from the audience is perhaps more important than getting an intellectual one. Hartwell compares Gecko’s brand of theatre to dance; there is a “guttural reaction to it” and it’s perhaps this visceral way of performing that allows Gecko to reimagine beliefs and get us to experience them in a new way.
“A physical reaction rather than a clear understanding” is the heart of Gecko’s ethos. Being more instinctual, according to Hartwell, is the best thing about physical theatre: “It’s so dynamic, it allows the audience to interpret in their own way. You don’t ascribe an idea to someone, you allow them to react to it quite instinctively.” Gecko is aiming right at your gut, for a primal reaction, and when you think about it there are few concepts more primal and instinctual than the idea of a soul.
According to Lahav, all of his plays are “driven by powerful music” and Missing is definitely no exception. Music is by Dave Price who has composed for Regina Spektor and Aqualung, and has also recently been nominated for an Off West End Award for his work. His frequently eerie soundscapes are a necessity for that primal punch. Even director Lahav doesn’t know exactly what his work is until an audience sees it, describing the play as a “leap of the imagination,” qualified only by an audience. Hartwell agrees: “That’s one of the things Gecko does; it allows people to go on their own journey.” According to Hartwell, you could go and see Missing at the first tour stop in Newcastle, and the show would be a different beast entirely to what is performed on its last stop in Plymouth. Its last show, The Overcoat (based on the short story of the same name by Gogol), which has been touring non-stop for two years, is, incredibly, still changing.
Gecko’s work, then, is always a kind of evolution. Beginning two years ago in a science lecture, the devised work has involved periods of research, a very lengthy thought process (including about a year to “sit and bubble” in Amit’s head) and intense rehearsals. After these epic two years it’s still evolving, growing with its actors, directors and dancers. Just on the brink of their first performance, Hartwell describes this phase of development as “the most exciting moment. We’re bringing together all those elements that we’ve been working on for two years and they’re now finally in the same room.” This play is still being created, and even though as we talk it’s only six days until the first performance, Hartwell is right: anything seems to be possible for Missing.
The fact that it’s still changing is shown by Lahav, who, while I’m in the theatre, has been onstage for over ten minutes deciding on the exact positioning of a light. He’s not done by the time I leave. This play, clearly, is a labour of love, and each component part is tweaked and tested to give the audience that punch in the gut angled just right to make them sit up and think about what they’re seeing.
Missing opens at Northern Stage, Newcastle, on 8 March and tours the UK until May. For dates, visit www.geckotheatre.com.
Image credit: Robert Golden