'Song From Far Away' review or 'Can you hear a humming?'

Song From Far Away, Simon Stephens (songs and lyrics by Mark Eitzel)
Young Vic Theatre, 4th September 2015

Have you ever had someone look right through and into you – and then back out the other side? They might be someone you know or a total stranger but, for a second, it feels like you have been seen and understood completely. And just as quickly, as the person looks away or the moment passes, that feeling is gone. That is how it feels to watch Simon Stephens’ new one-man-play ‘Song From Far Away’ – and it’s utterly devastating.

This production is Ivo van Hove’s latest Young Vic collaboration and it possesses the same bravery, simplicity and emotional thrust as his shattering version of ‘A View From the Bridge’. The two plays are totally different beasts but they still feel a lot like being burned by ice cold water.  

Jan Versweyveld’s set is a house but not a home, a backdrop will all the character and colour and detail sucked right out of it. We are looking front on at the blank walls and empty insides (there is one chair and nothing else) of trader Willem’s New York apartment. There are two areas: an entry hall with a chair and an empty living room with two large windows. The front of the house has been opened out and the dividing walls look thick yet flimsy. It’d only take one angry punch to tear right through them. The windows have no curtains and are filled with black light, although it is possible to spot the occasional flickering LED. When the light is right, the windows function as mirrors, sealing off the outside world and reflecting Willem’s image right back at him.

The story is very simple and – in a twist that is perhaps unusual for Simon Stephens who often holds onto his play’s secrets – revealed quite quickly. Willem has been called back home from New York to Amsterdam, following the unexpected death of his younger brother Pauli. Now, back in the ‘safety’ of his New York apartment, Willem is writing letters – honest, angry, mournful, thoughtful, exposing letters - to his brother. He is baring his soul to the dead.

Stephens deftly paints a picture of a man who has lived on the fringes of life for a very long time.  Willem (Eelco Smiths) describes the journey back home to Amsterdam. He talks of a world that seems to hum, as if all the noise and activity of life existed somewhere beyond him. When Willem gets to the airport he heads straight to the lounge; ‘nobody ever knows you in places like that.’ He puts in headphones, not to comfort himself with music but to blanket himself in white noise.

Stephens’ prose is cool, exacting, funny and unflashy. Willem talks in short and punchy sentences. Nothing is said that does not need to be said. Smiths’ Dutch accent means that the script always sounds a little awkward on his tongue. A tiny gap is opened out between the words and the character who ‘writes’ and speaks them and that gap is never closed back up. The dialogue rarely flows easily and it sounds a little like a poem, the beginning of poem, being written on the spot.

Willem returns home to his family in Amsterdam but that feeling of a humming world – a melody that he has not been asked to sing – persists. His family have not seen him for a very long time and his parents and sister are unreachable. Willem hears his dad sobbing like an animal late at night. One day, his mother looks right through Willem but - still – the two do not connect. Willem is here to mourn his brother, of course, but he is secretly pleased that this funeral will allow him to reunite with his ex-boyfriend. The two meet up on the day after Pauli’s funeral and, although Willem positively leaks with love for this man sitting opposite him in a cafĂ© he does not know him. He does not understand his life and he can no longer talk to him. They can barely hold each other’s hands.  

At some point, Smith’s Willem (and god is this Smith’s Willem) takes off all his clothes. He spends well over a half of the play completely naked. At first we try not to look – and then we study hard. We look – again and again – at his penis. Of course we do. We look at his thin, thin frame and forget how it looks without clothes on. We begin to feel comfortable with his naked form and, eventually, barely register that he is naked. We forget what we are looking at. We forget what is at risk.

Mark Eitzel’s songs are woven completely into Stephens’ play and bubble up – or force themselves through the text – at strange and haunting moments. These are the moments that feel the most naked. Willem picks up a guitar and sings. He sings about love and losing oneself in it. I’m not sure what he says to be honest, but he sounds like he is telling the truth. There’s something quite extraordinary about these small sung segments, all delivered in a pure and gentle voice. They are the only scenes that feel spontaneous. They are the only scenes that feel properly lived – rather than regretted or forgotten or mourned or longed for. They are fleeting, snatched little moments but they feel like watching precious pockets of present – living, breathing life – gifted to us on stage.

Snow flitters through Ivo von Hove’s bold and gentle production almost as much as Eitzel’s searching music. There is something life-affirming but also sad and deathly about this snow. For almost the whole of the play the world outside seems to be filled with nothing. All we see is blackness and a few flickering lights that remind us we are watching a play. But there are a few gorgeous scenes when the snow begins to fall against the deep black backdrop. It looks a bit like heaven. It looks a bit like crying but it feels hopeful and happy too; like all those childhood, sledging and snowy memories crammed into one. In one scene, Willem talks of playing with his niece in the snow. Everything, you see, is reported here – this is a man who cannot jump into his play but can only report from the edges. Willem describes his niece playing with sparklers in the snow and ‘watching her write names in the sparks in the night.’ And how’s about that for a description of what it is to live; just a flash of our names against a blank white backdrop – bright and beautiful for an instant, only to melt back into the black night and disappear completely.