Song From Far Away review: feats of stage poetry lighten the dark and unknowable

Ivo van Hove directs Eelco Smits as a lost soul in this moving one-man show by Simon Stephens

Song From Far Away ★★★★  

Shakespeare would call it the undiscovered country, from which no traveller returns. Beckett might see a light gleaming for an instant, pointlessly, before night snuffs it out again. And now Simon Stephens turns his thoughts to death, and everything it hollows or spurs, for this elegant solo show from Toneelgroep Amsterdam.

Set in a temporary dwelling in contemporary Amsterdam, it finds a weary traveller in a strikingly empty hotel room, almost offensively inoffensive in the uniform marigold of Jan Versweyveld design. Under Ivo van Hove’s sedate direction, this is revealed as a fabled space of transition. Like the Lloyd Hotel’s former residents, generations of Dutch emigrants, we’re all just passing through.

Willem, whom we first see cocooned in a parka jacket and world-obliterating headphones, is making the reverse journey, leaving a clinically affluent existence in New York to attend the funeral of his brother. In a beautifully understated performance, Eelco Smits plays him as a lost soul, although Stephen's writing – to quote from Enda Walsh's strangely compatible Arlington – "is a sensory piece".

Addressing his monologue to his brother, Pauli, who grows almost weighty here in absence, he describes the world in vivid, sumptuous terms. His New York “smells of coffee and mint and leather”, disturbed by a devastating phonecall “at a very inconvenient time” before a shower, on his arrival, feels strong enough to pierce his skin “and clean out my insides”. Willem, we know, is somehow severed from the world, but Stephens affords him every ravishing detail of a writer’s licence.


As the story unfolds, through excruciating encounters with his severe, disappointed father, a loving mother, a sweet gaggle of striving family members and a poignantly awkward reconnection with a former lover, both Stephens and van Hove seem to be striking out for the simplest, most affecting metaphor.

Among Stephens’ inclusions are the irreducibility of carbon, explained by a casual hook-up, or his brother’s belief (in suspiciously similar terms) in the human tendency towards song before words. Van Hove, opts for honest nakedness, revealing Smits body to be as impressively defined as a Michelangelo study: literally and figuratively man laid bare. (An actor with absorbing focus, Smits doesn’t let it become distracting, but you’d love to know his workout routine all the same.)

Both Stephens and van Hove settle, finally, for the power of song. Smits threads an overheard motif through the narrative – a very subtle threnody – which later blooms into a song by Mark Eitzel, credited as the play’s co-writer. Would that it were a better piece, or that Smits were allowed to sing it unassisted, but the sentiment is admirable.

Whether you consider the production’s later, gently gathering gestures – from falling snow, to flitting papers, to a heart-in-the-throat provocation – feats of stage poetry or signs of restlessness, you will recognise something moving in the attempt to trace the dark and unknowable in any way we can.

That has fast emerged as the theme of this festival's theatre. "There's no lack of void," says Estragon, performing just down the road. You're telling me, Gogo. Death at Intervals opens here next Wednesday.

- Until July 17th

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture