Review: Century Song (Volcano Theatre)

Photo of Neema Bickersteth provided by the companyCentury Song is a unique experience, on stage now in Toronto

There are no words.

Referring to Volcano Theatre‘s Century Song, now playing as part of the Progress Festival at The Theatre Centre, I mean this literally. Other than a few disparate syllables, the piece, a “music recital” study of ephemeral aspects of the Black Canadian experience over the past century, is completely wordless.

I also mean it figuratively. There are parts of Century Song that are beautiful, challenging, and stunning, and just might leave you speechless.

Don’t come to Century Song expecting a traditional storyline or what we typically call “musical theatre,” though there is gorgeous music and lots of theatricality. The story is a survey from servitude to sexuality, pop culture to protest.

It’s told through experimental and classical music of the past century in order of composition (Rachmaninoff, Cage, and Messiaen are featured, among others), courtesy of classically-trained soprano Neema Bickersteth (co-creator with Kate Alton and Ross Manson), pianist Gregory Oh, and percussionist and computer effects technician Debashis Sinha, accompanied by purposeful choreography and projections. There is a progression through eras, which is clear mostly due to costuming and design choices, particularly through the ever-present projections (via the German duo fettFilm).

Sometimes technology can be intrusive on the stage, particularly overwhelming to a solo performer, but here the projections are fascinating. They are technically impressive, and lend an enlarging quality to the performance and space, when combined. (When they run alone to an empty stage, the energy does dip a little.) They do have a slight “uncanny valley” effect (the discomfort of something almost, but not quite, real) and occasional rough moments (which my companion suggested might be due to a difference between Canadian and German frame rates), but this really works with the show’s overall feeling of twitchiness and collision between worlds and desires.

These projections, which keep returning to a lonely room, range from office towers to haunting etchings to an outdoor snowfall through a window. They’re particularly effective in a sustained pullback through a series of rooms, which are connected as if they’re the hallway of an art gallery, showing a progression of decades via pop-culture hallmarks. The opening, where faces of all types (age, gender, race) are displayed one after another, faster and faster, like a Michael Jackson video minus the morphing, emerges and then quickly gives the impression of pulling away from the stage to create a more complex world, in which Bickersteth appears.

Bickersteth is a compelling, magnetic performer with a lovely voice and extraordinary breath and tone control. Her movements are precise and athletic, though sometimes opaque (strict coherence is not the show’s strength, but the overall experience makes up for it). Effortlessly switching from staccato to legato phrasings and from chilly high notes to warmer, deeper tones, she can ease into a flat that sends shivers down the spine.

She’s clothed in a series of evocative costumes, particularly a sizzling, ‘20s-reminiscent golden gown, though this does require her to leave the stage with some frequency. Her accompaniment is a cool combination of computerized and live music, the piano truly living up to its name as a percussion instrument.

The finale, a piece by Reza Jacobs commissioned for the show, is worth the price of admission. Filled with different cultural influences that seem to fight for supremacy (or possible coexistence), it might stay with you for some time.

The show will have a life after the festival, as it is touring to Calgary, Vancouver, and even Europe, but there are only a few days left to catch it here.

I don’t really have the words to properly describe Century Song. So I’ll use my words instead to encourage you to go see it.


  • Century Song plays until January 23rd at The Theatre Centre Mainspace (1115 Queen Street West)
  • Performances are January 21-23rd at 8:00PM, with an additional 2:00PM performance on the 23rd.
  • Tickets are $25 ($20 for Student/Senior/Arts Worker) and are available online or through the box office at (416) 538-0988

Photo of Neema Bickersteth provided by the company