Naked Soliloquies Expose Man's Crisis In New Simon Stephens Play
Thirty-four year old Willem is alone on the stage, reading out a letter to his dead brother. This is Song from Far Away, the first original work by Simon Stephens (known for big stage adaptations, Curious Incident and The Cherry Orchard) to be performed at the Young Vic. It’s a melancholy and literally unadorned (more of that later) portrait of a single guy from Amsterdam, living the high life as a New York trader, now given his biggest reality check with the sudden death of his little brother. Suddenly he’s yearning for a connection in a world of coffee and breakfast on the go, where your closest ally is a barista who gives you a nice smile.
It’s frustrating that, in this very human piece, we aren’t always permitted the voice and listener connection with Willem (Eelco Smits). You’d be forgiven for thinking this was Man from Far Away on the now-swamping Young Vic main stage; great for director Ivo van Hove’s last award winning piece, A View from the Bridge, but perhaps not for this more delicate drama set inside a man’s head. It should feel as if we’re intimate listeners of Willem’s letters (the play is essentially all letters) but sometimes the words get as lost as the eventual sheets of paper Willem will let tumble out the window.
However, the main themes of grief and longing to connect are beautifully brought out by van Hove’s emblematic direction. Like grief itself, the agony in this play hits you out of nowhere — one minute Willem is replaying some grumpy dialogue he’s had with his dad, angry at the radio being turned off, the next he’s wailing deeply, sobbing both like a child and a man. Whether it’s meant to be his dad crying or Willem, we don’t know, but it’s strong stuff.
There's an oddly peaceful melancholy at poignant silences, watching the (also very real looking) falling snow outside the hotel window, for example, or hearing our protagonist count his breaths. When Willem strips completely naked and continues speaking to us for the entire ensuing half hour, the barriers are all down. This is a young man who wants deeply to connect, even if that has to be alone in his hotel room looking at his reflection or talking to an imaginary Pauli.
We just wanted to be able to experience all of this more fully. A Song from Far Away would have been so amazing in the smaller of Young Vic’s two stages for example. But it still stands up as a rare, modern existential crisis fable. And for that, it’s good, relevant and full of uneasy-making impact, right down to the question mark ending.
A Song From Far Away is at the Young Vic Theatre, The Cut SE1, until 19 September. Tickets: £10-£35. A Toneelgroep Amsterdam production, Young Vic London is the play's co-producer with Mostra Internacional de Teatro de São Paulo. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary press pass.
Last Updated 05 September 2015