Addiction is at the core of Shame, Steve McQueen’s 2011 film. It charts Brandon’s pleasure filled descent into a nightmarish hell, where he uses sex as a form of abuse, both against himself and others. Song from Far Away seems like it has nothing to do with Shame or sex- at least not overtly- and, in the first instance, not that much to do with addiction either. But I can’t be the only one who thinks about the film during or perhaps after Ivo van Hove and Simon Stephens' one hour and 15 minute monologue/ part stream of consciousness, where actor Eelco Smits as Willem, sheds his clothes for at least half of it, as if trying to find himself (one feels that if he could flay his skin to just get to something, to understand something, as he makes the journey from New York back to the bosom of his family for his brother’s untimely funeral in Amsterdam, he would).
It is not just the slim lined aesthetics. Not just Jan Versweyveld’s sparse, yet translucent light and hard filled set and the gaping windows which, nevertheless, or perhaps as well, have a feeling of a Canaletto and at the same time, Edward Hooper’s A Woman in the Sun. Even if Willem sees windows as expressions of wealth, so the outside world can voyeuristically witness prosperous lives.
But it is the profound individualistic hell and despair, simultaneously throbbing with life, which echoes Michael Fassbender’s Brandon, as well as Eelco Smits' hoodie look.
Now, it is not that theatre, or this work in particular, or any piece of work, should be looked at through the eyes or ears of another’s art, or within another’s oeuvre- it can be lazy, even derivative to both. But here Song from Far Away is worth thinking about in terms of Shame because it conjures up the same contradictions, the same modern aloneness, the same juxtapositions and conclusions perhaps, that Shame almost reaches.
A difference, is that Ivo van Hove and Simon Stephens don’t attempt to explain Willem’s aloneness too much. They don’t safely pin his despair and unhappiness onto an effect like sex addiction just to get the audience interested (although we do know that Willem has not had a relationship for a long time and has ‘forgotten how to hug’- one of the saddest lines). Which is why it feels so brave.There is, of course, some existentialist drama going on behind the snow and in the outside, an outside which is shut safely away from Willem for most of his time with us, which is the point one feels. There’s a terror, lurking somewhere beyond Willem himself. But it’s not sensationalised and therefore made palatable. Its genius is that we recognise it as the everyday for ourselves.
It’s this terror, though being slightly different, that partly links this work with Shame, as well as everything else I’ve mentioned. It has something to do with Brandon’s constant need to have sex and Willem’s need to take off his clothes and walk around and talk to himself or his dead brother or his ex in imagined, fantasised and remembered sequences, totally naked.
Without the nakedness, the piece would be half of what it is. Though Simon Stephens' writing is deceptively simple, poetic, it is made more dramatic and even fleshy, by the nakedness.The text is even juxtaposed by the nakedness. It’s different from Shame’s famous opening scene where Michael Fassbender openly wanders his apartment with no clothes on. Or is it? What’s in the desire to get naked, especially alone?
It feels, it feels as if Willem is trying to understand. All the time. Understand himself, understand his brother, understand love, his own needs and desires, understand and overcome - quite simply- life. In the form of epistolary theatre. And it’s not enough to wail and cry, as Willem does, although it is part of it. No, he has to go back to something simple, very simple, which is to be as naked as the day he was born.
But, after one takes of one’s clothes, what then can be taken off? Where, how, can the vital self be found and consoled by the self or indeed anyone?
The question asked of Shame was how such visual pleasure can communicate existential misery.
In some ways, the same can be asked here.
How can such a streamlined parred back stage, with simple patches of light, Mark Eitzel’s throaty wistful music and the effect of snow- how can this kind of poetry, coupled with Eelco Smits' often beautiful and angst ridden nakedness, convey such inward desperation, inward despair and Willem’s psychological locked in syndrome? His what might be now termed and labelled (as we have to label everything in psychology in order to understand) Depersonalisation Disorder?
We might wonder if it is the beauty that is the saving grace. Not the only grace. Willem’s letter writing is meant to redeem himself.
But one wonders why, in this day and age, he does not use email and save them in his drafts tab? It might seem a daft question, but I don’t think it is. For there is a mobile but not a laptop in sight. There’s a strange mix of the modern with the classical then, as made apparent by the old 70s looking radio in the hotel room. Is it more poetic to show his musings as if written on paper? There is something deep within us that that calls to, that the sight of someone composing at a lap top will never touch. But the incongruity doesn’t matter really. There’s incongruity everywhere. Who is this man? He doesn’t know himself.
Although I have read many of Simon Stephens' plays, this is the first time I have seen something on stage that is a play and not a version of something in translation. Has Simon Stephens found a soul mate in Ivo van Hove? How would a British director, one distinctly unEuropean, with less of a “don’t give a fuck attitude” and their different preconceptions, preoccupations, cultural upbringings and mannerisms, have interpreted the work? One thinks the outcome might be very different, though perhaps as interesting.
Yet Ivo van Hove and Eelco Smits really seem to understand the text, the soul of it. It feels so perfect that to touch it, might shatter it. What more exciting work could all three produce together?
Song from Far Away is at the Young Vic until 19th September.
written by Simon Stephens
Direction Ivo van Hove
Music & Lyrics Mark Eitzel
Design & Light Jan Versweyveld
Dramaturgy Bart Van den Eynde
Assistant Designer Ramón Huijbrechts
Assistant Designer Ramón Huijbrechts
Toneelgroep Amsterdam Private Producer Joachim Fleury