On a bare stage, filled only with four chairs and an incongruous looking cello, a man hesitantly appears, looks cautiously around him, picks up the cello, and begins to play. He produces a circular yet erratically atonal sound, one that has you constantly on edge. He is joined by three equally incongruous figures, dripping wet from the pouring rain. They sit, waiting for an unspecified something, and begin to shoot increasingly exasperated glances at the cellist.
Thus begins What Shall We Do With The Cello?, an atmospheric and tightly wound one act play by Matei Vișniec. It is firmly placed in the tradition of twentieth century European drama: the claustrophobic setting recalls Sartre, the absurd situation Ionesco, and the political resonances Brecht. It is a discussion on the social construction of difference and the origins of exclusion, as well as a kind of universally applicable parable on the consequences of intolerance; and equally as applicable to the Soviet Union as modern day America.
The cellist (Nick Allen) is the work’s fulcrum. His ceaseless playing of Iancu Dumitrescu’s score not only sets the tone for the whole piece, but puts in motion a series of actions from the other characters; revealing the work’s political and ethical parables. As the other (unnamed) characters (Simona Armstrong, Mihai Arsene, and Tudor Smoleanu) grow increasingly exasperated with his ceaseless rasping, they start a campaign to silence and remove him from their society.
The casting of the “cellist” as a silent, othered figure was particularly successful. As were the moments in which the delineations the trio build up between themselves and their companion are revealed to be flimsy and imaginary. Laughter in close juxtaposition with violence is also a hallmark of the production, and serves to underline its unsettling carnivalesque tone.
The cast all give solid, well-pitched performances, and negotiate the physical aspects of the staging with expert aplomb. As characters, though, I felt they were drawn as something in between caricatures of certain social groups, and unidentified drones in an authoritarian regime. It wasn’t clear what side the writing was meant to fall on, which did confuse the work’s tone at some stages.
At the work’s close, the production moves towards more overt political themes, as scenes from a Berlin divided by a wall and recent protests in Romania play in the background. This was, perhaps, unnecessary – I feel the audience would have understood the applicability about this helpful hint. But it remains, What Shall We Do With The Cello? was an astutely observed and meticulously staged piece.
What Shall We Do With The Cello? played at the Vaults until 12 February. For more information about the company Atelier Theatre Studio, click here.
Photo by Clare Park