Music and atmosphere trigger our imaginations to fill in the gaps of this elliptical narrative. A Theatre Passe Muraille and Music Picnic co-production, The Year of the Cello is created by Marjorie Chan and Njo Kong Kie. It tells a deceptively simple story about the entwined lives of three people in 1930s Hong Kong.
Wen (Rong Fu) recalls her friend Li-An, who lost her family to a plague ravaging the city. The death of each relative gently punctuated as she pulls drying clothes down from a line. The two women form an intense bond which is disrupted by the arrival of the Cellist (Bryan Holt).
Though he is only present for a single day, his music has a devastating effect upon their lives. When he leaves, Li-An slips into a fugue state that lasts a year; no longer speaking, she drifts through her life, playing Bach on an old gramophone they found in their apartment.
Chan’s text is poetic, full of yearning and sharp images. It is nostalgic for a Hong Kong lost to time. Fu’s delivery is steady and relentless, as if the crucial moments must be addressed before they too are lost. There is a dreamy, feverish quality to the monologue.
The Cellist never speaks, but my eyes were often drawn to him. He seems proud, self-assured yet cagey. Silently, he provokes, listens, and confronts. Does he feel guilty about the effect he’s had? It’s hard to tell, but we can read so much into his intriguing body language. I’d be curious to see how the Cellist is conveyed by the alternate performer, Brendan Rogers.
This is the first production presented in the newly renovated Bob Nasmith Innovation Backspace. The steep riser seating familiar to TPM Backspace patrons is now retractable, allowing the high, narrow space to be considerably more versatile. This show is presented length-wise, making use of both the stage floor and upper balcony.
Production designer Echo Zhou doesn’t fill the space with much. A bed centre stage. That antique gramophone to the side. As characters move about the space, the warm light spreads out or focuses in, depending on mood. A shimmer of reflected blue light suggests the water of the bay.
In the finale, an extended sequence without dialogue, the Cellist takes us through the many shifting, intense emotions of this year of the cello. The composition, by Kong Kie, is haunting and allusive. Often veering into an atonal, almost deconstructionist mode, the music feels designed to draw attention to the instrument itself.
In her direction, Chan allows the overall stillness of this sequence to focus our attention on the music and slight shifts of Fu’s body as she listens. It is a truly hypnotic experience—meditative, aching and resonant.