Jan Versweyveld

Songs From Far Away

Reviewer's Rating

Songs From Far Away opened in Brazil, then in Amsterdam and now we are treated to its arrival on the Young Vic stage. It is a brilliant amalgamation of the talents of Simon Stephens, Belgian director Ivo Van Hoe (A View From the Bridge, Young Vic) and the production of Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep. Immediately captivating is Jan Versweyveld’s minimalist stage design which provides an apt backdrop for this enchanting seventy-five minute monologue. Our protagonist, city-banker Willem (Eelco Smits) enters his New York apartment alone after returning from a visit to his estranged family in Amsterdam. He had returned to his dislocated home for the funeral of his younger brother Pauli. Willem’s monologue consists of reading aloud a series of letters written for his deceased brother. Behind Willem, a single lamp projects his billowing shadow onto the cream walls of his apartment- very gesture he performs is magnified, creating a vivid and isolating disparity between shadow and substance, life and death, as he searches for some comprehension of his brother’s untimely passing.

Songs From Far Away is playwright Simon Stephens’ debut at the Young Vic. Best known for his adaptation of A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time at the National Theatre, this production re-asserts Stephens position as one of this country’s finest playwrights. The dreamy, poetic script simmers between the mundane and the ontological. Willem’s grasp for a comprehension of life incorporates Facebook adds, iPhones and sleazy hook-ups in bars which firmly entrenches Willem’s lonely meditations in twenty-first century culture. Willem’s characterisation is thoughtful and develops rapidly. In a production containing only one cast member, the characterisation extends to Willem’s discussions of the other people he encounters on his return to Amsterdam; his parents, his younger sister, Marcelo whom he hooks up with in a bar and ultimately, Pauli. The absence of these characters as a physical presence on the stage heightens his sense of isolation, but they remain vivid images for the audience.

Stephens’ collaboration with Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep evokes a wonderful illumination of some of his strongest work to date. Eelco Smits offers a wonderful and daring performance. Initially cutting a sassy and confident figure, Smits captures the dissolution of Willem’s New-York facade. Director Ivo Van Hove strips Willem and he spends half of the production stark naked, mirroring his emotional exposure. Songs From Far Away is a tight and moving production; all of its features are neatly entwined. I could, and in fact shall, watch this production again. You should get tickets too. Message me, let’s get a drink and discuss it in greater depth.