Studio-based theatre, for so long the preserve of the frivolous and the makeshift, has truly come of age, bursting the seams of its former home and graduating onto main stages. By marrying grand spectacle that would sit comfortably in the West End with an integrity seldom found therein, The Overcoat proves physical theatre to have thoroughly outgrown its chrysalis.
A freely inspired telling of Gogol’s story of the same name, Gecko’s latest is a meaty mix of politics and philosophy that nourishes the eyes as much as the mind.
They twist Gogol’s tale into that of an impoverished paper-pusher, Akaky, enslaved by his nine to five routine and grappling with his own meagre existence. His run down appearance is mocked by his colleagues, such that he strives only for the new overcoat offered as a bonus by his megalomaniac boss. From his cramped single flat, Akaky concocts romantic fantasies where the coat is springboard to a better life of love, success and self-worth. Finally, his desperation leads to death, as his search spirals into depression and, finally, suicide.
What has become clear is quite how well physical theatre can serve existential fiction and the focus on the individual imprisoned by a mechanized society. Director Amit Lahav cracks open the urban, capital-driven existence and serves it sunny-side down, swimming guiltily in its own greasy juices. Modernity seems an unfulfilling and unforgiving place, in which everyone else seems better off. We sprint only to fall behind, we toil only to come second, we assert ourselves only to slip into the anonymous crowds. The Overcoat pounds with a paranoia and self-loathing all too familiar.
Its brilliance stems from Gecko’s ability to bind Akaky’s inner-life – his lust-filled dreams and nightmares – so tightly to the external world of work and the city that we see everything through his eyes.
Though, at times, the narrative leans from ambiguity to obscurity, Lahav’s directorial flair is mind-boggling. Add an immaculately precise ensemble and thrillingly expressive design, lighting and sound from Ti Green, James Farncombe and Dan Steele respectively and you have a night made for the theatre.
As Akaky sinks through his single bed and into a dream-world seen from a birds-eye view, he seems to clutch at all of our unreachable desires. The Overcoat is a beautiful examination of the insufficiency of the self and the everyday tragedy of inescapable inadequacy. In that, not only have Gecko created a work of universal meaning, they have become standard-bearers for physical theatre.