THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Song from Far Away
Willem is a young Dutch expat banker in New York, driven and self-absorbed. His life is interrupted by a call from his mother back in Amsterdam to tell him that his young brother Pauli has just died suddenly. He flies back and in the lead up to and after the funeral he composes a series of daily letters to Pauli, alternately melancholic, rebellious or calm in tone, in an attempt to find a connection again with brother he never really made any effort to know. This is monologue as a mourning process and is grounded in an utterly mesmeric solo performance from Eelco Smits, for whom it was written.
Smits is a member of the brilliant Dutch ensemble Toneelgroep Amsterdam and this is directed by its head, Ivo van Hove. He made a huge splash in London last year with his stunning reinvention of A View from the Bridge. Van Hove successfully bridges that unfortunate chasm between 'European' and British theatre and he commissioned the play from Simon Stephens, a British playwright, who like him favours a combination of theatrical lyricism crossed with an acute social realism. Stephens too is currently riding the wave of his Tony winning hit A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time so this arrives at the Young Vic with huge expectations. It was premiered at a festival in Sao Paulo and has just played Amsterdam.
The 80 minute piece is a real slow burner which builds to a powerful yet ambiguous crescendo and van Hove is as daringly refreshing as ever in his directorial choices. Jan Versweyveld's set, a sterile white box with square windows, evokes anonymous hotel rooms or ghostly departure lounges and is the perfect canvas on which his constantly changing, painterly, lighting slowly sweeps across both us and Willem, altering our moods. It's the perfect blend of design and text.
Smits is a totally compelling actor. His resonant bass voice makes his Dutch inflected English even more jagged and he perfectly captures how Willem is lost to himself. Forced to 'deal with' his grieving but stoic parents he fails and is chided by his sister for not being more giving. An encounter with an old boyfriend makes him weep and the simple joie de vivre of his little niece affects him deeply. Choosing a hotel instead of staying with his parents he has an unsettling one night stand with a curious Brazilian, which provides more diversion than comfort.
The piece builds to a tender ballad 'Go where the love is', composed by Mark Eitzel, a frequent collaborator of Stephens. Willem sings:
It's not where you are
which gets to nub of this quietly eloquent portrait of grief. It explores the sheer messiness of family bereavement and how we are to survive it without some sort of anchor. "We exist in the gaps between the sounds that we make and we all die interrupted" says Willem at one stage. By the end this packs quite an emotional punch.Tickets: www.youngvic.org