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Song from Far Away

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

An unexpected return to naturalism for Simon Stephens in this frail, gorgeous monologue

Simon Stephens reinvented himself a decade or so ago as the impeccably cool older brother of British avant-garde theatre, so I’d assumed the playwright had closed the door on the warmer, more naturalistic writing that he made his name with as a younger man.

So what a delicate, devastating surprise ‘Song from Far Away’ is, a 90-minute monologue about a very modern Stephens type character – an isolated, spiritually empty banker – that’s brimming with a level of detail and feeling missing from his wantonly harsh, ambiguous recent work.

‘Song from Far Away’ is a co-production with the internationally renowned Toneelgroep Amsterdam and its protagonist, Willem (Eelco Smits), is Dutch. Or rather, he’s Dutch in exile: the 34-year-old quit Amsterdam for New York 12 years ago and has barely looked back. He is wealthy, and content, and he loves the city. Then he receives word that his brother has died, and he heads home, to his family.

If all these events were simply acted out on stage, you’d get a conventional enough neo-Stephens play in which Willem was detached and laconic. But the monologue format allows no hiding place, and we actually find out how he ended up this way as Willem’s sorrow and confusion are slowly, surely drawn out of him. He is numb, numb in a way that he didn’t realise he was, numb in a way that infuriates and upsets his grieving family and leaves him sundered from the sorrow around him. And in ‘Song from Far Away’ he inexorably works through his thoughts until slowly he stumbles on the vague, low-key, but momentous decision that exiled him from his home both physically and spiritually.

Smits is splendid – wryly charismatic, brimming with confusion and long-suppressed feeling, but free of the histrionics that might easily sink this sad whisper of a play. There are no ‘ta-da!’ revelations, just an exquisite bleed of reflection.

Director Ivo van Hove responds with according subtlety. Jan Versweyveld’s apartment set is bare save a humming AC unit and a window through which we can see a distant traffic light. The most ostentatious intervention is to have Smits naked for much of the show – symbolic of his spiritual undressing, but there’s something slightly dancerly about his to-ing and fro-ing that offers light adornment to the stark minimalism.

In fact, the actual biggest flourish is the working in of a new song by Stephens’s hero Mark Eitzel – an indulgence, kind of, but it’s a raw, bleak, pretty thing that helps this fragile play drift off into the night with the gentleness it deserves

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Details

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Price:
£10-£35. Runs 1hr 15min (no interval)
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