Most of the reviews I’ve read of Song From Far Away feel as though they should be whispered rather than spoken aloud. They have given the impression that the play contains such delicacy and tenderness, the sense of leaving the Young Vic feeling absolutely shattered. There are few productions I have loved as much as Ivo Van Hove’s A View From The Bridge and Stephens’ voice is always so clear and beautifully angry in his writing.
I have high expectations.
Eelco Smits plays Willem, a 34 year old man who has written six letters to his dead brother. We follow him through bars, beds and breakdowns. It is a beautifully written story and a carefully directed piece. So I’m not entirely sure what my problem with it is. Eelco is Dutch. Maybe my issue is that the words don’t feel naturally his. The self-deprecation, dark humour and slipped in swear words feel very English and so very Simon Stephens. Or maybe my problem is that I have a crap seat so it actually does feel very Far Away indeed.
But then something changes. Willem sits on the window sill and speaks with such sincerity about his family that I get goose bumps. Suddenly he takes control of the words and I believe in him.
“I don’t know how to hug anyone anymore.”
If this were real and Willem were to suddenly have a heart attack I wouldn’t know who to call. His family? He’s been shut out by them. His ex? It seems like he’s clinging onto something long lost there. The extent to which he is very much alone is affecting.
“Come home” he sings, his hand on the imaginary cheek of his boyfriend from years ago. From the awkward angle at which I’m sitting way at the back of the theatre, I can see through the doorway, where his jumper is strewn out. It just happens to be laid out at exactly the same angle as his arm is now, so it seems as though there could be another couple behind the frame, in exactly the same position. He sings with this accidental echo behind him and I’m suddenly very pleased with where I’m sitting.
The set is Stephens’ natural territory; a lonely hotel room, reminiscent of Birdland and Wastwater. There is nothing comfortable about it, it’s all sharp edges. It doesn’t say please stay here. It says you’re staying here because you have to. It is like a flat pack Ikea room with super cool lighting and that fake snow that you buy at the German market on the Southbank every year even though you never really need or want it. The windowed room is empty apart from a chair which rests in a section of the room separated by a wall with a doorframe, an air conditioning unit that hums occasionally and a lamp. The solid structure of the lamp reminds me of the outline in a Patrick Caulfield painting. As I search for the image I come across something he said, ‘I’ve only the friendship of hotel rooms’. He and Stephens would get on.
Eelco gets naked. At first the lack of clothing doesn’t seem to add anything, but gradually the decision begins to make sense. His nakedness allows him to be an innocent child being told off. It allows him to be a beastly figure, trapped in himself, his muscles heaving with his internal struggle. It allows him to be a vulnerable man just wanting to be loved.
But part of me still wants to give him a blanket to cover him up and make him a bit cosier.
There is a beautiful moment where we see this dull hotel room turn from night to day with the shadow of Eelco’s body and the big fat lamp jittering across the bare walls. It gives a similar effect to those old flick books or a zoetrope, or a piece by Julian Opie. It doesn’t quite feel real.
“Do you only ever realise you’re living in a golden age after it’s gone?”
The sense of loss is carried throughout the whole piece. Mark Eitzel’s music subtly reappears throughout as a half remembered song, with Willem sometimes gliding into it, sometimes humming or strumming it. Sometimes it is played from behind a closed door, distancing Willem even more from the outside world.
Eelco is in silhouette. The stage behind him is various shades of orange melting into shadows. His carved form is outlined, his fingers twisting up high as he describes a little girl spelling out his dead brother’s name with a sparkler. I almost expect the sparks to magically appear. This is a real moment of beauty. I can still see it.
I’m still not entirely sure what I think of Song From Far Away. It hasn’t left me shattered or grieving. But I do find myself trying to hum that song, trying to catch that melody that I can’t quite grasp.
Young Vic 07/09/15