Penned shortly before its author, Matei Visniec, claimed asylum from Ceausescu’s regime, What Shall We Do With the Cello? shares a common trait with other plays by dissident Eastern European writers. It’s vague, written as in code, and relies to no small extent on the audiences’ nuanced understanding of the political and cultural context it’s criticising. Thirty years later, in front of an audience with little understanding of those very same nuances, the vagueness becomes the most dominant trait of What Shall We Do With the Cello? in its first UK showing.
The basic narrative, devoid of all those tricky, culturally specific layers, remains. Three people find themselves in a dire room, where they hide from the rain and wait, existentially, for an unspecified thing; undeterred by the endless waiting, they project all their frustrations at a cellist, playing stubbornly and with little interest for his audience. The three-people mob eventually resorts to violence and extracts the ostensible oppressor from the room. His instrument – evidence of the presumed reign of terror – is all that remains.
Rather than anchoring the performance in a different, signposted political context, director Vasile Nedelcu opts to let the deliberate looseness of the text reign free, but left largely to its own devices, the text ends up looking politically outdated. It’s tempting (if ill advised) to see the cellist (Nick Allen) as a representation of Visniec himself, banished from his country not so much by the oppressive regime as the phlegmatic, narrow minded crowd of his compatriots, the left behind cello a symbol of resistance that outlives the individual. These days, however, the situation is somewhat different: the masses are passionately partisan, rather than comatosed, and oppression can come from leaders who both won the election and lost the popular vote. Behind the patina of the decades, What Shall We Do With the Cello? does pose timely questions about personal agency and our tendency to focus on the symptoms (cellist in a waiting room / immigrants in a crammed NHS waiting room) rather than the problem itself (perpetual waiting / durational defunding of the NHS). The performance does not however attach these notions to contemporary situations in any sustained way – instead, it puts forward three characters in retro, old fashioned costumes, and finishes off with a projection of Berlin Wall/Eastern Bloc videos – stating firmly that What Shall We Do With the Cello? belongs in the past. When the final montage incorporates footage from the recent, anti-corruption protests in Romania, the modern touch looks anachronistic.
Other directorial choices seem accidental. All three actors (Simona Armstrong, Mihai Arsene, Tudor Smoleanu), for example, are Romanian and speak with Romanian accents – but it’s unclear if this is a nod to the author and the play’s original context or an intentional dig at the uncertainty faced by EU immigrants at the moment. Most importantly, the symbolism of the cellist, who plays atonal, experimental music of Iancu Dumitrescu, is never resolved. It may be he is a stand in for resistance – though his refusal to engage with fellow human beings suggests this protest to be exclusive, excluding, and not particularly poignant. It may be that he is a metaphor of trying to maintain normalcy in world that’s falling apart – refusing to accept the top-down rules. It may even be that he is, against all odds, the oppressor – though that would make Dumitrescu’s music a dictatorial weapon. Or it may be, that he is a cellist with a thing for avantgarde music, symbolic of that one guy on the tube whose music is entertaining everyone through his phone; the music is great, but you’d rather hear your thoughts and his umbrella is dripping on you and he is probably sitting on a fold down seat during rush hour on the northern line.
The chances are, that wasn’t the intention – but with so few clues as to what it was, the conclusion stands to logic and would make the angry mob a hero. The performance finishes with the cello continuing to play on its own, alongside images from the protests in Romania, but this intended finishing touch doesn’t help the confusion. Maybe the successful protesters of today are the descendants of the ones who failed in the past or maybe the perpetual cello means the corruption will continue regardless; either way, in this reincarnation, displaced from its time and context without new ones to replace them, What Shall We Do With the Cello? loses that very sharp, dissident edge that saw Visniec banned in Eastern Bloc Romania.
What Shall We Do With The Cello? was on at Vault festival 2017. Click here for more details.