Willem is 34. He moved from Amsterdam to New York City 12 years ago. After an inconveniently timed phone call from his mother on a cold New York morning, he goes home for his younger brother Pauli’s funeral. He is greeted by his father’s disappointment, his sister’s lectures and the disorientation of not knowing where “home” is anymore. Much has changed, yet so much has remained the same.
I’m 33 years old. Eleven years ago, I moved to the UK from New York City. I use the term “home” fluidly because I don’t know where that place is anymore. So far I haven’t had to suddenly return for a family funeral, but that time will come. I know too well that disarming, unnamed feeling of simultaneous comfort and sadness from remembered places and people, those that have stayed the same and those have changed or disappeared altogether. There are many things that I miss, but much that reinforces my choice not just to leave, but to stay away.
I should have been in tears by the end of Song from Far Away, especially as I saw the 11 September performance, a day indelibly impressed on my memory with an anniversary no easier to bear with each passing year. Willem unexpectedly lost his little brother to an undiagnosed heart condition; I fortunately lost no one in 9/11. I was moved at times, by Simon Stephens’ delicate language, Mark Eizel’s folksy travelling tunes, and Eelco Smits’ honest portrayal of Willem’s understated struggles. Frustratingly, I never received the cathartic cry I sought from this production though, and I should have, considering how keenly I relate to Willem.
The performance and design elements are subtly beautiful, but the production is skeletal. The changing light and shadows of time passing have more connection to the present than the character does, who is more at home in transit than in the arrival at a place. The production seems to want to be minimalist in the extreme in order to draw attention to Willem’s displacement in the world, but in doing so creates an ethereal anti-theatre that doesn’t manage to come close to the audience’s heartstrings. Willem’s extended monologue in the form of letters to Pauli opens his heart to us as he (literally) bares all, but his world is so insular that we are excluded. We can witness, but not engage.
Stephens’ script sounds like it would read better on the page than performed as a theatre piece, at least with Ivo van Hove’s chosen directorial concept. The language is undeniably beautiful and human, and creates a wonderful character, but the production concept distances and isolates him from us, reinforced in the final moments of the play. A Song from Far Away is just that – too distant to hear the details of a faintly mourning cry on cold winter’s day in New York City. We want to comfort the singer, but he is moving further out of our grasp the longer we listen.
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