Written by Simon Stephens and Mark Eitzel
Directed by Kirk Jameson
Song From Far Away is an evocative study of grief, emotional repression and isolation that is at turns both delicate and brutal. This monologue with song perfectly blends the talents of playwright Simon Stephens and songwriter Mark Eitzel. It feels like a musical for those of us who want to see something that feels more ethereal like the vibe of Cocteau Twins rather than a big West End number. Will Young is a singer, actor and writer who excels as the emotionally repressed and weary cynic that is Willem. Like his character Willem, Young has also lost his only brother but if the performer is channeling his own grief, anger or frustration it is subtle and never remotely self indulgent.
Grief is like a fault line that opens up inside of us and irrevocably changes our emotional landscape. When we speak of grief as a journey or a process, perhaps what we are really describing is how we accommodate this new version of ourselves that still fits our outward clothing but internally feels alien and strange. We see the world in double vision…part familiar terrain and part unchartered waters. Song From Far Away takes Willem from his adopted New York, once New Amsterdam, back to his childhood home of Amsterdam for the funeral of his 20 year brother Pauli. The monologue is in form of letters written to Pauli as Willem reluctantly navigates a return to his childhood home.
Will Young gives a controlled and emotionally nuanced performance as a hedge fund manager rich in wealth but pauper poor in empathy. Willem is emotionally guarded and aloof and his initial response to hearing his brother has died is one of irritation. Young channels Willems’ disdain for others into micro gestures, facial expressions and clipped tones that convey the character as emotionally stunted and terribly damaged by his family dynamics. This is story telling with caustic wit and casual cruelty yet punctuated by moments that catch Willem by surprise. In those, Young can dazzle with the small agonies of walking into his brothers’ bedroom and finding a sock drawer left open and a half read Kafka novel never to be unfinished or a sudden rush of joy as his little niece Anka singles him out to play with.
The staging by Ingrid Hu is sleek and minimalist, as beige as an airport lounge, a Manhattan loft apartment or a perfectly tended dutch townhouse. Marbled walls and sweeping curtains frame vast windows that act is a backdrop to the magic of quietly falling snow or the hazy sparkle of fireworks dancing in a night sky. The ceiling occasionally lowers or rises, and walls and curtains ebb and flow echoing the emotional tides of grieving. The contracting and expanding like a heart that carries on despite another having stopped forever. Jane Lalljee uses light to move the scenes letter by letter as Young recounts the week after his brothers’ death. The hazy, dreamy lighting is punctuated by occasional plumes of amorphous smoke that create almost a sense of another being circling Willem as he reads to Pauli.
A song fragment heard in a bar lodges in his memory and encapsulates his sense of loss and fragmentation. Young hums and later sings as the song takes form and something seems to open up in Willem. Young sings exquisitely and wistfully. This feels like a prayer to loss and the possibilities of love and connection. Young manages to rein in his performance so we never lose the sense of Willem on stage rather than Young, the singer. Stephens and Eitzel beautifully convey a sense of rootless dislocation and the complexities of family, relationships and grief. Director Kirk Jameson has been sensitive and controlled in his directing. The production retains a strong flavour of European theatre and the style of Ivo Van Hove who originally commissioned the play in 2014. Jameson has retained the contradictions and sense of alienation in the production but allowed the writing to feel equally at home at HOME…rather fitting as a homecoming for Simon Stephens who is Stockport born and bred.