ng Vic Theatre, London
Simon Stephens, Ivo van Hove, and David Lan. What a combination. Stephens the writer, van Hove the director (A View from the Bridge, Antigone) and Lan, the producer who can always be relied upon to find fresh perspectives and luminaries.
Ivo van Hove is just about the hottest international director around at the moment. Five years ago his Amsterdam Toneelgroep brought a revelatory radical eight-hour reworking of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies to London’s Barbican Theatre. He followed that the following year with the Antonioni Project, a `homage’ to the great 1960s avant garde Italian director. In the meantime, he’s been busy in German theatre houses and in New York. Last year he swept just about all before him with his intimate staging of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which opened at the Young Vic.
Now comes the UK premiere of his Toneelgroep production, first seen in Sao Paulo, of British writer, Simon Stephens’ Song From Far Away.
Stephens, too, is in demand in Europe as well as being one of our most prolific and popular writers here. In the past few years, he’s written or been involved in a clutch of delicately woven personal encounters – Birdland, Wastwater, Country Music, the adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night amongst many others whilst his Carmen Disruption seen at the Almeida in April took us on an anarchic, sometimes nightmare existential journey through modern-day Europe using Carmen and opera as a backdrop.
Song From Far Away seems one step further down a dystopic line, a variation on Camus’ L’Etranger where Stephens’ central protagonist is a young man with similar reactions of `passivity’ and alienation to the world around him as Camus’ doomed, anti-hero.
Has Willem too decided the response to our existence can only now be an absurdist one? Willem is a young Dutch banker, working in New York who one bright, crisp January morning gets a call from his mother to say his younger brother, Pauli, has died suddenly. He must return home immediately.
What follows is an extraordinary 80 minute solo by Eelco Smits as Willem in which the older, gay, brother scrupulously outlines every step, nuance and family reaction to his return for the funeral in the form of letters to Pauli – a description whose impact is the more so by dint of Willem writing as though all the time he were observing his own feelings as an outsider as well as those of his parents, his sisters and the mourners who attend Pauli’s funeral.
Even more unsettling than the material – and the nihilistic conclusion to which Willem seems increasingly drawn – is the manner of van Hove’s production. Spare, dominated by two windows through which light flows or darkens, Smits talks to us with a naturalness and intimacy that is shocking in its nakedness. Indeed, for half of the performance, Willem, as if desperate to throw off his old self and discover a new one in the wake of the shock of Pauli’s death, performs in the nude. Sometimes he’s in shadow, sometimes caught in a doorway as if between worlds. All is being being recorded.
Stephens and van Hove leave the ending ambiguous with the possibility that Willem too has made a choice. He may be on the brink of a new beginning, or he may be about to terminate it.
Stephens has never written with such clarity or poignancy. Every word is measured against, one feels, a powerful, despairing sense of philosophical impotence. One striking sentence, ` we exist in the gaps between the sounds we make’ would seem to echo a sentiment Stephens expressed in Carmen Disruption about when words fail to sufficiently express our emotions, that is when we break into song/opera.
Or perhaps he is following the Zen idea:
`It is the silence between the notes that makes the music.’
Willem even refers later after an unsuccessful meeting with an old lover, Isaac, to the primary position of singing in the history of our hunter-gatherer forefathers who `sung before they spoke’. Willem is haunted by a song whose roots he can’t quite locate. It follows him through his few days in Amsterdam. At last he sings it out loud, `go where the love is’ – a song written by Mark Eitzel who shares the authorship credit with Stephens.
I wished they’d stopped about ten minutes earlier but this is nonetheless a stunningly theatrical, philosophically probing encounter – and yet another example of van Hove’s teeming imaginative powers. Like Robert Lepage, he seems never content to repeat himself but always to be pushing on the boundaries of technology and what is possible in the theatre.
Song From Far Away is at the Young Vic Theatre to Sept 19, 2015
First published in Londongrip, Sept 2015