Willem is a man who never listens to music. He clamps headphones over his ears, but all they play back to him is the sound of his own breathing. It reminds me of something Hannah Nicklin wrote after seeing Carmen Disruption at the Almeida: “I put my headphones in with nothing playing which is the closest I get to this city.”
Willem is the speaker and protagonist of Song from Far Away, Simon Stephens’ latest play, and the two cities whose muffled pulse he hears through headphones are Amsterdam and New York. The old world and the new. Returning to Amsterdam following the sudden death of his brother, disillusioned banker Willem is not unlike the alienated figures who wander through Carmen Disruption, experiencing the city of his youth as “a chorus of rattling trams and bewildering underwear billboard posters and cafés and railings shuttering off unfinished building work”. A noisy, meaningless place.
Walking through Amsterdam, Willem repeats a line uttered by the Singer in Carmen Disruption and by self-destructing rock star Paul in Birdland: “none of this is real”. As that echo suggests, Song from Far Away shares many of the themes that recur in Stephens’ recent work: home, disconnection, the hollowness of late capitalist cities. Even Jan Versweyveld’s calculatedly bland design has the perfect clean lines of every antiseptic, impersonal space that threads through these plays. Whether the room on stage is meant to be the elegant hotel where Willem stays in Amsterdam or the apartment that lies waiting for him in New York, it’s a cool, blank canvas of a space.
On that canvas, Willem composes a series of letters to his dead brother, letters that narrate his fraught and awkward homecoming. After leaving twelve years ago with barely a backward glance, he’s forced right into the grieving heart of his family. Numb and remote, all he does is upset them. Delivering the one-way correspondence as a monologue – always addressed to the invisible ghost of his brother, never to us the audience – Eelco Smits is raw and exposed, both figuratively and literally. Shedding his clothes, he stands on stage stripped of everything his new life has clothed him in, back home with nothing to protect him from the cold.
That coolness seeps right through Ivo van Hove’s stylish but distanced staging – and not just in the flurries of snow that fall behind Smits. It’s also a production that’s very still. Incredibly, precisely, frustratingly still. Whereas van Hove’s stunning take on A View from the Bridge turned Arthur Miller’s play into a ticking bomb, all of us holding our breath as we waited for it to go off, any tension bleeds from Song from Far Away. Though Versweyveld’s deft shifts in lighting move us through the hours, the production has the feel of one of those endless, sleep-robbed nights: slow, static, full of thoughts. It’s numbing, just like Willem moves numbly through his grief.
Feeling sneaks in though, often in the mournful, fractured melody of Mark Eitzel’s music. Just one song ribbons through the narrative, first heard in an anonymous bar and then echoing across the days Willem spends in Amsterdam. We hear it in snatches and phrases, like the half-remembered tunes of the past, until finally it forces its way through – a startling shaft of pure emotion, singing “go where the love is”.
Song from Far Away is a play that echoes with emptinesses. The emptiness of grief with no expression. The emptiness of a city that has long ceased being home. The emptiness of hotels and airports and characterless apartment blocks. The emptiness of the promises we build our lives on: the hollow assurance that it will all be worth it in the end. Like the inky blackness that lies behind the set’s two large windows, such promises are shown to conceal a vast nothingness.
But it’s hard to connect with emptiness, on the stage even more so than on the page. Stephens’ play begs to be re-read almost as soon as the curtain call has finished, yet as theatre it has an oddly detached quality. The first time Willem – the man who never listens to music – hears the song of the title, he says it “caught my heart in its hand”. Song from Far Away struggles for the same heart-squeezing grasp.