Amit Lahav
BBC4 and iPlayer

Institute Credit: John Ferguson
Institute Credit: John Ferguson
Institute Credit: John Ferguson

Theatre and television are very different in the approach taken to entertaining audiences. The need to ensure theatre patrons in the cheap seats get the full benefit of plays requires vocal projection and grand gestures. This exaggerated approach makes theatre a suitable medium for shows that employ symbolism to make a point while the high level of intimacy allowed by close-ups means television can offer a more natural, realistic style of entertainment.

Amit Lahav’s Institute, however, jumps the line between stage and television. Although it originated as a stage production, the version broadcast on BBC4 was designed for television. One of the more striking aspects about the production is that the theatrical origins do not limit transition to the screen. The atmosphere set by creator Amit Lahav is one of confusion, even chaos, so although there is dialogue, it is broken and muddled leaving the characters to communicate through physical movement as much as spoken word.

The theme of Institute is not easy to determine but is likely to concern the inability to move beyond past trauma. This dark subject is tackled in the deceptively light manner. The initial dance is performed as a lively duet with the dancers working in unison to Dave Price’s skipping, cheerful music.

Martin (Amit Lahav who created the show) and Daniel (Chris Evans) are undergoing therapy in an institute, possibly learning to interact with other people or at least each other. Martin is obsessed by, and constantly replays, a failed romance, while Daniel has suffered a professional breakdown and struggles to complete even basic clerical tasks. They are treated by a pair of therapists who are hardly good examples of physical or mental health—one being physically frail and the other obsessed by his father. The treatment involves undertaking bizarre role-play with the characters at one point reading casual small talk off cue cards. Communication is clearly an issue. The therapists, who speak French, German or gibberish, might not be best suited to treat patients who speak only English.

Amit Lahav makes great use of the techniques available in television. The mountain of filing cabinets which created an oppressive atmosphere on stage is replaced by closed-circuit cameras monitoring the movements of the patients. Intense close-ups bring out the desperation of the characters and there is a paranoid sense of them under constant supervision with someone always looking over their shoulders.

Daniel and Martin are well-crafted characters; there is a very English sense about them as if they are being polite and trying to solve their problems for the benefit of the therapists as much as themselves. An atmosphere of desperation hangs over the institute with the therapists seeming to need help just as much as the patients. There is a cathartic moment of clarity between Daniel and Martin, hinting they might be able to help each other recover without the therapists if they were able to overcome the masculine inhibitions that hinder communication.

Institute is such a successful TV presentation it becomes hard to imagine if it would have worked so well on stage.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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