“We exist in the gaps between the sounds that we make”
It’s hard not to be seduced by Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam once you’ve experienced them one way or another – there’s a reason I keep travelling to the Netherlands to see them work – and not even Simon Stephens is immune. Having previously adapted Ubu for the company, he has now written monologue Song from Far Away specifically for one of their ensemble members, Eelco Smits, who performs it here at the Young Vic in English.
34 year old banker Willem has relocated to New York but is called back to his native Amsterdam when his younger brother dies. In a haze of casual sex with Brazilians, numerous glasses of Scotch and ginger and disorientating encounters with strangers, his journey back to a family, a home, a country he had abandoned is sketched out through a series of letters he writes to the brother he barely knew whilst coming to realise he barely knows himself.
Smits is sensational without ever being showy, the way in which his understated, almost conversational lightness is savagely undercut by unexpected explosions of anguish is hugely affecting, its rawness stripping back the protective layers Willem has built up. These layers are physical as well as metaphorical, this is naked grief in every sense of the word as he recoils from the shock of what it does to his parents, the relationships with his other family members, the former lover he reaches out to.
And there is stunning work from Jan Versweyveld’s design and lighting, playing with shadows as much as light in the functional hotel room set. What he achieves with one floor lamp is astounding – warm light flooding out from below, subtly cooler light radiating from above, and yet still enough shade for Willem to periodically dissolve into the anonymity he so craves, the darkness cradling his naked form, shadows juddering across the stage like ghostly fragments of the past.
Underscoring the whole play is a plaintive soundtrack by singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel, Smits revealing a tuneful voice of his own to give expression to what Willem can barely bring himself to say. The intimacy of the cumulative sadness in Song from Far Away is breathtakingly vulnerable, as gentle as falling snow yet weighted with the inescapable pain of living.