tue 26/03/2019

Song from Far Away, Young Vic | reviews, news & interviews

Song from Far Away, Young Vic

Song from Far Away, Young Vic

Simon Stephens’ raw meditation on grief creeps under the skin

Willem (Eelco Smits) receives the devastating newsJan Versweyveld

“My brother died.” That’s the reality New York-based banker Willem struggles to inhabit when he returns to his estranged family in Amsterdam. There is no sense in Pauli’s loss – a sudden heart attack at 20, cradled by a stranger in the street – nor finality. Willem’s response is to continue the conversation through an elegiac series of letters, countering the abandonment and searching for meaning in both a life interrupted and his own isolated existence.

Protean Simon Stephens, in his first original play for the Young Vic, delivers a penetrating 75-minute monologue. Its stark potency is superbly served by Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam production, theatre stripped bare as a mesmerising Eelco Smits (pictured below) strips off his clothes. Jan Versweyveld supplies barren white walls and windows that look out over a darkened, wintry city, but also conjure a ghostly reflection. Sometimes the meticulous lighting dims so much that Smits is in silhouette, every gesture magnified. Nothing stands between the audience and total emotional exposure.

Grief is not ennobled, and though seismic, the shock waves ripple through the ordinary. Willem mordantly and matter-of-factly charts everything, from minor annoyances to harrowing encounters. The call from his mother “comes crashing in” – Smits mimes the fatal descent of a plane – but its an inconvenient time, and he’s short with her. His obsessively tidy sister views oddly dispassionate Willem as a threat to her ordered universe. She’s looking after their parents, she chides – why isn’t he playing his part? In this reversal of caregiving roles, Willem helplessly observes his father’s primal rage and grief. Smits surrenders to it in an unforgettable animalistic howl.Song from Far Away, Young VicWillem’s homecoming is complicated further by his dislocation, which we share as he lists alien landmarks in an unfamiliar language. He’s most comfortable in the Lloyd hotel, which once housed emigrants heading to the New World, and the anonymous, liminal airport lounge. Then, in his local gay bar, he hears a song that succeeds where speech has failed: an exquisitely soulful Mark Eitzel piece that haunts Stephens poetic text. Willem’s attempts to recreate it speak to the impossibility of capturing the intangible – maddening for someone who feeds off control.

Smits evokes a vivid cast of supporting characters: the wheeler-dealer uncle trying to shift dodgy Persian rugs; pivotal old flame Isaac; and a one-night stand absurdly pontificating in a way Willem knows his brother would have found amusing. Pauli is the most vivid summoning of all, from niece Anka spelling out his name with a sparkler to childhood memories and Willem kneeling to address a chair. He is both there and not there, for us as well as for Willem.

This is a subtle piece of shattering accumulative power. It demands such attentiveness that when an onstage AC unit ceases humming, the impact is like a gunshot. “We exist in the gaps between the sounds we make,” posits Willem, and the desolate silence becomes worthy of a life.

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